A graveyard slot (or death 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. Others use broadcast automation to pass-through network feeds unattended, with no one outside of broadcasting authority-mandated personnel and emergency anchors/reporters present at the local station overnight. A few stations use "we're always on" or a variant to position their 24-hour operation as a promotional selling point, though as this is now the rule rather than the exception it was in the past, it has now mainly become a selling point for a station's website instead.
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/morning show (between 2:00 am and 6:00 am). During this time slot, most people who are at home are asleep, and most of those who are awake are either at work, away from the television, trying to fall asleep, 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.
The slot is used in the United States by some niche networks to transmit live sports such as cricket, Nippon Professional Baseball, Philippine Basketball Association matches, and Australian rules football from Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, and other nations where the American overnight is the Asian afternoon and evening. Some limited prime-time or noontime general programming from those nations is also transmitted live to the United States, and for anime sites such as Crunchyroll which have arrangements with Japanese networks to premiere episodes day-date-and-time, it can be considered that site's official primetime slot.
The United States graveyard slot is often the premiere slot for content streaming on demand. 12:01 am in the Pacific Time Zone (or 3:01 am Eastern and 7:01 or 8:01 am UTC depending on daylight saving time), where the streaming provider Netflix is based, is when that provider often releases and premieres their series and films for the first time worldwide across all time zones, along with Amazon Prime. Hulu chooses to release their series at 12:01 am Eastern.
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 and a source of programming without any programming expenses or the possible malfunctions which might come with going off-the-air; the graveyard slots can also be used as dumping grounds for government-mandated public affairs programming, or for station groups which are required by their parent companies to carry programming, to air those shows otherwise unpalatable in prime timeslots; for instance with Sinclair Broadcast Group, a public affairs program by political commentator Armstrong Williams (who has business interests with Sinclair), The Right Side, is required to be aired by all Sinclair stations, but is often seen in graveyard slots on those stations instead of its intended weekend late morning slots as many Sinclair stations choose locally instead to present educational shows and paid programming at that time. The most often seen original programming in the overnight period in the past was daytime talk shows which had failed to find an audience in their original timeslots and are being burned off, though with cable networks airing the same talk shows, usually a same-day late repeat of a successful talk show or infotainment news program is now carried; this is prevalent in markets with sports teams where coach's shows and team highlight shows preempt primetime infotainment shows before primetime, allowing it to be seen in some form on a station without penalty to the syndicator.
No program that airs during an overnight graveyard slot may be counted toward the three minimum weekly hours of educational programming the U.S. government mandates stations carry each week.
In cases where a television station carries an irregularly scheduled sporting event that preempts the network prime time lineup, in many cases the station may air the preempted programming in a graveyard slot during the same broadcast day to fulfill their contractual obligations.
The Big Three television networks in the United States all offer regular programming in the overnight slot (ABC and CBS use overnight newscasts, with an emphasis on sports scores from West Coast games that typically conclude after 1 am ET and international financial markets with the ending of the Australasian and beginning of the European trading day, all of which takes place between 2 and 5 am ET, and NBC, which dropped its overnight news in the late 1990s, replays the fourth hour of Today). Each network also produces its early morning newscast at 4 am 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 are returning from late shifts; 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 (a current day example is Adult Swim's FishCenter Live, which features games projected onto the video image of an aquarium), 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.
Another thing to note is the prevalence of cheaply produced local advertisements which allow an advertiser to purchase time on the station for a low cost, advertisements for services of a sexual nature (such as premium-rate adult rate entertainment services and adult products from companies such as Adam & Eve), and public service announcements airing in this time slot due to the reduced importance of advertising revenue.
Up until 2014, some cable networks would broadcast educational programing that educators can tape as part of Cable in the Classroom during these hours.
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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.
In the UK, overnight is from 12:30 am to 6:00 am.
BBC One showed Sign Zone from 2000 to 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 1 am depending on which films or programmes are broadcast usually followed by Weather for the week ahead BBC Two shows Sign Zone and repeats for the first part and then either closes down which is marked in schedules as "This is BBC Two" ITV shows Jackpot247 (After Midnight on STV; Teleshopping on UTV) and then a repeats before showing ITV Nightscreen until 5:05 am on weekdays followed by The Jeremy Kyle Show, and 6 am at the weekend. 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 National Football League season for American football, the American NBC's Sunday Night Football game, along with playoff games and the Super Bowl, are carried live, which is often also the case with other popular American sports airing in primetime in the UK on Sky Sports and BT Sport. Channel 5 shows Supercasino and some repeats. 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 noon CT; but actual participation in this varies by individual station. Local news in this slot usually consists of the morning newscast's stories repeated with spare updating, along with community interest segments where organizations are highlighted in an interview setting, along with paid placement advertorial segments for businesses. Stations that do not carry news in this slot usually air syndicated fare or an infomercial; in numerous cases, educational programs can be buried in this slot or any other daytime slot as a form of malicious compliance with the mandate for such programs. Prior to the 1970s, this slot was a popular "lunch slot", and shows such as Jeopardy! were popular in the time slot.
- Weekdays, 4 pm Eastern
- When the noon time slot became unfavorable in the late 1970s, networks began doubling up airings of their noon shows at 4 pm. 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 regularly programming the slot by 1986 (incidentally the same year The Oprah Winfrey Show debuted; Oprah soon came to dominate the time slot), and until 1996, occasional afterschool specials for children. 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 3 pm 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, several television series emerged that became widely popular among the viewing audiences (such as Dallas, Falcon Crest, and Miami Vice), and most programs that were scheduled against them were doomed to cancellation because of the competition, which marked the beginning of a phenomenon known as the "Friday night death slot." Fewer viewers stayed home to watch television on Friday nights beginning in the mid-1990s, particularly those in the much-sought after 18–49 demographic, which prompted a revival of the phrase in a new context in that a series on Friday was still more likely to lose money and lag in viewership compared to shows on other nights, regardless of its direct competition. 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 (the latter show kept alive in that time slot to garner enough episodes for syndication).
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, CSI: NY, and Shark Tank. 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, Jessie and most recently Girl Meets World). 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, and continued to air Fridays for another five seasons.
- Weekend afternoons
- Particularly when no sporting events are airing, there is very little incentive to watch television after Saturday morning news programs or Sunday morning talk shows end, especially with NFL or college football, where most stations refuse outright to put on competitive programming if a local team is playing on another station carrying that game. 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 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 2009–10, NBC's Outlaw and Chase and CBS's Chaos in 2010–11, and CBS's How to Be a Gentleman and NBC's The Firm in 2011–12. 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 am)
- 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 am time slot is the most common time for stations to air public affairs and (on Sundays) televangelism programs.
- Sunday nights, 7 – 8 pm and 10 – 11 pm
- 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 pm 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 (later Sunday Funday) block, though mid-season replacement series have still had problems finding an audience in the time slot. CBS attempted to stabilize the 10 pm 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. ABC airs America's Funniest Home Videos in the early time slot, a relatively low-cost and low-risk program, while NBC (which holds the NBC Sunday Night Football contract that takes up the entire night during the fall and early winter) airs Dateline NBC during the NFL offseason (in the 90's NBC attempted to compete full-force with 60 Minutes with a string of unsuccessful hard newsmagazines before relying on the lighter or true crime-focused Dateline). ABC has had somewhat greater success in the late slot with scripted dramas (e.g. The Practice and Brothers & Sisters).
- Opposite popular annual programming specials
- Programs such as the Academy Awards, Super Bowl, and the Olympic Games; as well as seasonal airings of popular classic films such as The Wizard of Oz, have been 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 under an unsaid gentleman's agreement.
- Opposite dominant television series
- On occasion, a regularly scheduled program may have this kind of dominant drawing power. Notable examples included NBC's The Cosby Show for most of the mid- and late-1980s, ER during its peak in the second half of the 1990s (at the time when NBC's Thursday primetime schedule represented the most watched television programs of the decade), and Fox's American Idol during its peak in the mid-2000s and early 2010s (at the peak of reality television in the U.S. during those decades) - 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 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". For the most part in modern times however, Cancon requirements are filled easily by television stations throughout the week through local newscasts and magazine programming, along with licensed versions of American programs such as ET Canada.
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 am and 10:00 pm). 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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