A graveyard slot is a time period in which a television audience is very small compared to other times of the day, and therefore broadcast programming is considered far less important. Graveyard slots are usually in the early morning hours of each day, when most people are asleep. Because there is little likelihood of having a substantial viewing audience during this time period, providing useful television programming during this time is usually considered unimportant; some broadcast stations go off the air during these hours, and some audience measurement systems do not collect measurements for these periods. Some broadcasters may do engineering work at this time.
The most well-known graveyard slot in most parts of the world is the overnight television slot, after late night television and before breakfast television (between 2:00 AM and 6:00 AM). During this time slot, most people that are at home are asleep, and most of those that are awake are either at work, away from the television, or just returning home from a bar and too intoxicated to pay attention, leaving only insomniacs, intentionally nocturnal people, and irregular shift workers as potential audiences. Because of the small number of people in those categories, the overnight shift was historically ignored as a revenue opportunity, although increases in irregular shifts have made overnight programming more viable than it had been in the past. In the United States, for example, research has shown that the number of televisions in use at 4:30 AM doubled from 1995 to 2010 (8% to 16%).
Since the advent of home video recording, some programs in this slot may be transmitted mainly with home taping in mind. Among these are the BBC's Sign Zone and their former specialist service BBC Select, which were for specialist audiences. Some channels may carry adult-oriented content in the graveyard slot, although programming of a pornographic nature is restricted to subscription channels in most countries because government communications regulations forbid pornography on over-the-air channels at any time of the day.
Since the 1980s, graveyard slots, once populated by broadcasts of syndicated reruns and old movies, have increasingly been used for program-length infomercials or simulcasting of home shopping channels, which provide a media outlet with revenue without any programming expenses; the graveyard slots can also be used as dumping grounds for government-mandated public affairs programming. The Big Three television networks in the United States all offer regular programming in the overnight slot (ABC and CBS use overnight newscasts, and NBC, which dropped its overnight news in the late 1990s, replays entertainment programming). Each network also airs its early morning newscast at 4 a.m. local time so that it may be tape delayed to air before local news. Also, since the proliferation of digital video recorders, several cable and satellite outlets have begun airing original or rarely seen archival programming in these time slots to make them available to those recording them on DVRs (special restrictions prevent stations from using the overnight graveyard slot for E/I shows). An emerging trend in the United States is an increasingly early local newscast, which now begins as early as 4:00 AM in some major markets, targeting those who work early shifts or go to bed extremely late; this early newscast would fit into the overnight daypart rather than breakfast television.
The graveyard slots' lack of importance sometimes benefits programs. Producers and program-makers can afford to take more risks, as there is less advertising revenue at stake. For example, an unusual or niche program may find a chance for an audience in a graveyard slot, or a formerly popular program that no longer merits an important time slot may be allowed to run in a graveyard slot instead of being removed from the schedule completely. However, abusing this practice may lead to channel drift if the demoted programs were presented as channel stars at some time.
Japanese over-the-air stations broadcast late night anime almost exclusively, starting in the Late night television slot at 11:00 PM, but bridging the graveyard slot and running until 4:00 AM. Because advertising revenue is scant in these time slots, the broadcasts primarily promote DVD versions of their series, which may be longer, uncensored, and/or have added features like commentary tracks, side stories and epilogues.
BBC One showed Sign Zone from 2000-2013 during this time before simulcasting with BBC World News (in a 3 way simulcast between BBC One, BBC News Channel and BBC World News for the second part). Nowadays, BBC World News comes on usually after midnight or 1am depending on which film is broadcast for the first part and usually following Weatherview BBC Two shows Sign Zone and repeats for the first part and then either BBC Learning Zone or closes down which is marked in schedules as "This is BBC Two" depending on the time of year. ITV shows Jackpot247 and then repeats before showing ITV Nightscreen excluding STV which in turn has The Nightshift through to 6am (sometimes 5am) and they broadcast ITV Nightscreen before joining Daybreak on weekdays and CITV at weekends. Channel 4 shows repeats and films during these hours apart from Wednesdays where sports including, Motor Racing, Triathlon and Beach Volleyball are shown. During the American Football season a live match is normally shown for most of the slot on Mondays. Channel 5 shows Supercasino with some repeats towards the end. Most digital channels during this time either go off air or show simulcast with shopping channels and some stay on the air. BBC News Channel simulcasts with BBC World News during these hours.
Examples of graveyard slots in the United States, outside of the traditional overnight slots, include:
- Weekdays, noon Eastern
- This time slot became a "death slot" for network programming as local midday news became more popular in the 1970s. CBS still offers an option for affiliates to air The Young and the Restless at noon Eastern, mainly so that Central Time Zone affiliates can air local news at 12 noon CT; but actual participation in this varies by location. Stations that do not carry news in this slot usually air syndicated fare or an infomercial. Prior to the 1970s, this slot was a popular "lunch slot", and shows such as Jeopardy! were popular in the time slot.
- Weekdays, 4 p.m. Eastern
- When the noon time slot became unfavorable in the late 1970s, networks began doubling up airings of their noon shows at 4 p.m. Increases in syndication during the early 1980s led to networks having fewer and fewer affiliates in this time slot as well, and eventually all networks abandoned the slot by 1986 (incidentally the same year The Oprah Winfrey Show debuted; Oprah soon came to dominate the time slot). Since the 1990s, the expansion of local television news has led to stations without major syndicated hits choosing to offer local news in this hour. By 2012, most networks' daytime programming had ended at 2 p.m. Eastern, and many stations have begun offering up to three hours of local news, interrupted either by a 4:30 syndicated program or the 6:30 network news.
- Friday night death slot
- In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the term "death slot" was used to denote that any network programs scheduled opposite hugely popular Friday evening series (such as Dallas, Falcon Crest, and Miami Vice) were doomed to certain death in the ratings wars. This time slot, however, has become increasingly unpopular due to fewer viewers being at home to watch television on Friday nights, particularly among the much-sought after 18–49 demographic. Also, with media conglomerates now owning both television networks and film studios, the former must downplay programming by corporate demand to attract moviegoers to theaters on the traditional opening night for major films. As such, programs that air on Friday nights tend to lag behind in viewership compared to those on other weeknights, and networks have since programmed inexpensive reality programming or news magazines in this slot instead of scripted programs. Scripted programs that end up in Friday night slots have often been moved there from more lucrative Monday-Thursday evening time slots due to poor performance, and this is often an indication that the series is facing cancellation. This was the case with ABC's 8 Simple Rules in 2004–05, and Fox's 'Til Death in 2009–10.
Since 2005, CBS is the only major network that continues to air a full line-up of first-run scripted programming on Fridays, and has become successful with this time slot in the last 15 years. The CW has also maintained an entire primetime schedule of scripted programs since 2010, with similar success.
Despite being a known graveyard slot, there have been notable exceptions to this rule, such as The Brady Bunch, Sanford and Son, Full House, Homicide: Life on the Street, Reba, Numb3rs, Ghost Whisperer, and CSI: NY. In addition, a handful of cable channels have also had success with Friday night programming. This includes USA Network, which had a lineup of original programming on Friday evenings from 2002 to 2010 featuring Monk as the lineup's centerpiece, and Disney Channel, which since 2006 has successfully maintained a schedule of largely scripted Friday night programming which appeals to pre-teens and young teenagers (including series such as Wizards of Waverly Place, Phineas & Ferb, The Suite Life on Deck, and Jessie). Original made-for-TV movies occasionally premiere in the slot several times per year as an attempt to keep potential movie-goers at home. ABC had notable success on Friday evenings with its TGIF lineup beginning in 1989, but the time slot's ratings began to wane in the late 1990s. ABC made another attempt at Friday success in the 2012–13 season, moving the family-oriented Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing to Fridays for its sophomore season. Despite this move, the show's ratings held steady from the previous season, when it aired on Tuesdays.
- Weekend afternoons
- Particularly when no sporting events are airing, there is very little incentive to watch television after Saturday morning cartoons and news programs or Sunday morning talk shows end. Most stations air infomercials, movies, or little-watched syndicated fare in this slot. ABC airs reality television reruns in the late afternoon slot.
- Saturday nights
- Until the 1990s, many popular series aired on Saturdays, including CBS series such as Have Gun - Will Travel, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Carol Burnett Show, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Early Edition and Walker, Texas Ranger, as well as NBC's The Golden Girls and its numerous spin-offs, and most networks maintained a full schedule (though the night was also often used for airing movies). However, in the past decade a similar situation to Friday nights has emerged, with fewer viewers in front of a TV set. The last major efforts to program Saturday nights ended in 2001, when CBS canceled Walker, Texas Ranger and NBC failed with the XFL. Thus, since 2004, the mainstream U.S. networks have largely abandoned original programming on Saturday nights in favor of reruns and occasionally sports coverage (with the exception of CBS, which continues a limited first-run presence with 48 Hours Mystery). In recent years, a new trend has emerged where a show that is considered to be a ratings failure (or is already canceled) is moved to Saturday nights to finish airing its original episodes. Examples include NBC's Crusoe and the CBS miniseries Harper's Island in 2008–09, CBS's Three Rivers and ABC's The Forgotten in 2009–2010, NBC's Outlaw and Chase and CBS's Chaos in 2010–2011, and CBS's How to Be a Gentleman and NBC's The Firm in 2011-2012. Despite being a known graveyard slot, some channels have gained or maintained success in the Saturday night slot. Such exceptions include Nickelodeon, which has successfully aired a Saturday primetime lineup of first-run programming aimed at pre-teens and teenagers since August 1992 (which has included popular series such as Clarissa Explains It All, All That, Kenan & Kel, iCarly, and Victorious), and Syfy, which has had respectable success with made-for-TV movies that regularly air during Saturday primetime.
- Early weekend mornings (prior to 7 a.m.)
- Because people generally stay out later on Friday and Saturday nights than other nights of the week, people also tend to sleep in longer on weekend mornings. The weekend morning 5–7 a.m. time slot is the most common time for stations to air public affairs and (on Sundays) televangelism programs.
- Sunday nights, 7–8 p.m. and 10–11 p.m.
- Because of overruns from National Football League (NFL) games, Fox (in the earlier slot) and, to a lesser extent, CBS (in the latter slot) have had difficulty launching shows in these time slots. Each network uses a different strategy to handle overruns; Fox would preempt its programming in the early time slot if an NFL game overran its time slot, while CBS (to protect its popular news magazine, 60 Minutes) delays its entire prime time broadcast programming schedule if a game overruns, resulting in the show scheduled for the 10 p.m. slot being pushed well past its original start time and occasionally being bumped. Fox has since addressed the issue by clearing out the time slot for an NFL post-game show during the NFL regular season and setting aside a portion for short-run animated series under its Animation Domination block, though mid-season replacement series have still had problems finding an audience in the time slot. CBS has attempted to stabilize the 10 p.m. slot by moving its established series CSI: Miami from its original Monday night slot to Sunday nights instead of trying to launch a new show in the usually troublesome slot. (CSI: Miami was nonetheless canceled after two seasons in its Sunday time slot.) Rival networks ABC and NBC air America's Funniest Home Videos and Dateline NBC respectively in the early time slot, both relatively low-cost programs. ABC has had somewhat greater success in the late slot with scripted dramas (e.g. The Practice and Brothers & Sisters).
- Opposite popular programming
- Programs such as the Academy Awards, Super Bowl, and the Olympic Games are known to draw so many viewers that almost all efforts to counterprogram against them have failed. As such, broadcasters have traditionally countered these events with either reruns or movies. The Super Bowl has historically attracted more unusual fare (such as Animal Planet's Puppy Bowl, a football-themed special consisting of puppies at play), with most aiming to counter the halftime show to emulate Fox's success with its live In Living Color special in 1992. However, as all four major commercial networks now have some tie to the National Football League's television deals (with all but ABC alternating to air the game), major networks have aired little to no new original programming on the night of the Super Bowl. On occasion, a regularly scheduled program may have this kind of dominant drawing power. Notable examples included The Cosby Show for most of the mid- and late-1980s, ER during its peak in the second half of the 1990s, and American Idol during its peak in the mid-2000s; each of which was dubbed a "Death Star" by the other networks because of the show's consistent ability to dominate the ratings.
In Canada, federal regulations require television channels and radio stations to carry a certain percentage of Canadian content (or Cancon). It is common for most privately owned television channels to air the bulk of their Cancon in such graveyard slots (especially weekday mornings and Saturday nights), ensuring they can meet their required percentages of Canadian programming while leaving room for more popular foreign programming in other time periods. For over-the-air terrestrial television stations, the overnight hours are generally not subject to Canadian content (Cancon) requirements, allowing some opportunity for niche or experimental programming during those hours, although most commonly infomercials air instead. Canadian radio stations have similar practices regarding broadcasts of Canadian music, known pejoratively as the "beaver hour".
Likewise, in the United States, some stations attempt to bury mandated E/I educational television programming in graveyard slots, though under current regulations by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Children's television series must air during times when children are awake (current standards state between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.). Thus, these channels will "bury" E/I programs in the middle of a block of infomercials during daytime television hours, when most children are at school and are unlikely to ever see them.
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- Katherine Phillips. "Witty sitcoms scheduled in Friday night death slot," Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 28, 1986, page 46: "ABC is sending two of this season's brightest new sitcoms to certain death at the hands of J.R. Ewing and his Dallas clan."
- John Voorhees. "ABC reshuffles schedule for ratings but deals only two new shows," The Seattle Times, December 13, 1985, page C5: "Also being dropped is Our Family Honor, the ABC series that has had the distinction of being the lowest-rated Nielsen show almost every week since its debut. It is in the Friday night death slot of 10 pm, against Miami Vice and Falcon Crest.'
- Knight-Ridder News Service. 'Family Honor' ditched for 'Spenser', Lexington Herald-Leader (KY), October 19, 1985, page C6: "Spenser: For Hire, the above-par detective series starring Robert Urich, is being moved out of the Friday-night death slot opposite Miami Vice and Falcon Crest. ... To make room for "Spenser," ABC is taking "Our Family Honor" off the air [Tuesdays], at least for a while and perhaps permanently.
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Late night television
2:00 AM – 6:00 AM