HBO’s Sunday night shows are more important than ever

In the era of streaming, a regularly released roster of hits helps the network cut through “cultural conversation” all week long, execs say.
article cover

Claudette Barius/HBO

· 5 min read

Last month, TV fans were faced with a conundrum. The season finale of HBO’s highly rated drama, The Last of Us, would be released at 9pm EST on Sunday, March 12, an hour into the broadcast of the Academy Awards. As they couldn’t reasonably watch both at the same time, which would they choose?

HBO executives had a guess. There was no serious consideration to move the finale to another night, as HBO had done for the series’ fifth episode during the Super Bowl, according to Meredith Gertler, head of global content strategy and analysis, scheduling, editorial and merchandising, and podcasts for HBO, HBO Max, and discovery+. Hard-core Last of Us fans would opt to tune in live, executives figured, and anyone else could watch The Last of Us whenever the Oscars ended.

They were right. Around 8.2 million viewers watched the finale, a record for the series—and proof enough that HBO didn’t need “to cede ground, really, to anyone,” Gertler said.

For many television fans, HBO has been the network to watch on Sunday ever since shows like Sex and the City and The Sopranos started winning over viewers in the late ’90s and early aughts. Dominating Sunday night viewing was so important that it was briefly a marketing slogan for the brand in the early 2000s: “Sunday is…HBO.”

“Sundays are obviously a defining element of our brand,” Zach Enterlin, EVP, brand content and creative, streaming marketing for HBO and HBO Max, said. “You know you’ll have something great on Sunday nights. It’s part of our DNA.”

Owning Sunday nights has become even more crucial in the era of peak TV, even though subscribers can technically watch HBO shows whenever. It’s a legacy the network is eager to continue capitalizing on.

“There’s so much choice out there,” Enterlin said, “so that differentiation is really important to us.”

Sunday stun-day

HBO originally took over Sunday nights to carve out a competitive advantage since other TV networks were airing their biggest hits during the week.

“Weekends were not considered the place where people were watching TV,” Paul Hardart, a clinical professor of marketing and the director of the entertainment, media, and technology program at New York University’s Stern School of Business, explained. By airing boundary-pushing programming before the beginning of the workweek, HBO quickly changed that perception.

“They created a new consumer behavior in a way,” Hardart said.

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

The email newsletter guaranteed to bring you the latest stories shaping the marketing and advertising world, like only the Brew can.

HBO competitors like AMC and Showtime quickly followed suit, boasting their own prestige Sunday night lineups. That means the pressure was—and still is—on for HBO to air high-quality Sunday night programming year-round, where buzzy originals like House of the Dragon and The Last of Us lead seamlessly into new seasons of The White Lotus and Succession.

“Our subscribers have come to expect it,” Enterlin said.

Good habits

It may seem that dominating one night of the week is an old-fashioned approach. People can watch popular shows any time they want, and some streamers have opted to release entire seasons of programming all at once.

Since HBO still has a linear channel to program, new episodes of big shows still come out weekly, and often on Sunday nights. Since there is so much programming against which HBO competes, satisfying audiences who have come to expect an excellent Sunday night show is one way to stand out.

“When you just think about how much programming is out there, how much noise there is …it’s almost like a tree falling in the forest out there,” Enterlin said. “There’s just too much choice.”

Plus, releasing programming weekly on Sundays can help shows deliver cultural clout through weeklong audience discussion while also potentially bringing curious new viewers into the fold.

“Sunday is still sort of kicking off the workweek,” Gertler said. “Whether it’s a virtual watercooler or an in-person watercooler, it can be very impactful when you have the kind of programming that generates this kind of cultural conversation and buzz.”

Other streamers have looked to own their own nights: Disney+, for example, releases new original episodes on Wednesdays. And as media companies increasingly re-embrace the weekly release model as a way to stretch out their content slates and try to prevent subscriber churn, HBO’s Sunday night dominance may look more useful than ever.

But HBO has ambitions beyond just Sundays. As HBO’s programming slate has grown larger, the network is using other nights of the week, like Monday, to release high-profile shows like Chernobyl and Perry Mason. In theory, every show HBO makes, whether it airs on a different night of the week or exists purely on streaming, should be “of the utmost quality,” Gertler said—i.e., one that could feasibly air on a Sunday night.

“The idea of creating consumption every day of the week is the goal,” Enterlin said.

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

The email newsletter guaranteed to bring you the latest stories shaping the marketing and advertising world, like only the Brew can.