Stupid Question ™
Jan. 28, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Why does prime-time TV run 8-11 p.m. in both the Eastern and Pacific time zones, but 7-10 p.m. in both Central and Mountain?
A: There are two meanings to “prime time.” The general one is the time when most viewers are watching, which is about 6-11 p.m. The specific one is when the networks show their top shows, which is 7-10 or 8-11 depending on the time zone.
Why not go 8-11 everywhere? Most morning shows start at 9 a.m. everywhere. And the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which covers six times zones, runs prime time 7-11 p.m. in all of them (except tiny Newfoundland, which is a pesky half-hour off and isn’t big enough to get its own special time-delay broadcast).
Most network programs are “fed” from the Eastern zone (New York or Washington). In the early days of prime time, shows were live and would be literally repeated for reception in each time zone. Once transmission by wire came in, however, it was cheaper for Central zone stations to pick up shows live from Eastern, thus getting it only an hour earlier (due to the time zone shift).
But the Pacific zone’s three-hour time difference was big enough that they had to tape everything and run it later, which they did according to the “normal” Eastern schedule.
With a two-hour difference, Mountain also had to tape shows, and chose to show them at the same one-hour delay that Central used.
Why would Mountain do that? An NBC spokesperson said that in the less populous, farm-based Central and Mountain zones, “People just turned in earlier.” You got more viewers if you ran shows an hour early.
Most network sources say that in modern times, networks would lose neither money nor viewers by choosing a uniform time. But they say the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in the way.
In 1971, the FCC enacted the Prime-Time Access Rule, which limited network use of prime time to three hours, making room for more local and syndicated programming. In the rule, the FCC defined prime time as 7-11 Eastern/Pacific and 6-10 Central/Mountain. It informally suggested that all networks use their three hours in the 8-11 Eastern/Pacific and 7-10 Central/Mountain slot, which they all did.
NBC and Fox told me that the FCC thus dictated the weird prime-time times. The FCC told me that it just copied what the networks were already doing.
I believe the FCC. But the terms of the rule may discourage, or even prevent, the networks from switching everything over to a single time. (This would also explain why both Alaska and Hawaii are also on a 7-10 schedule, since nothing else does.)
Cable TV has rather blindly followed the network lead and put its own twist on this mess. Most cablers deliver two satellite feeds—one live straight to Eastern, the other on a three-hour delay to Pacific so it’s 8-11 as well. Central picks up the Eastern feed live and goes 7-10, while Mountain picks p the Pacific feed live and goes 9 p.m.-midnight.