As my editors and I were planning our annual fall TV preview package, someone bothered to wonder: Do we still need to publish the broadcast schedule grid?
I'm referring to that chart with all the lines, columns and times that the networks put out to let us know when and where their shows air. It pops up every year around this time in TV Guide and other publications, including this newspaper.
It wasn't a silly question. After all, in this age of time-shifted and on-demand viewing, such schedules can seem like relics. Many of us really don't need to know that "NCIS" this season will air just before its new spinoff, "NCIS: New Orleans," Tuesday nights on CBS. We can watch what we want to watch when we want to watch it. Just give us the premiere dates and be done with it.
And TV viewers, more than ever, are living off the grid. I'd bet that my young-adult sons, for example, have never even glanced at a network schedule. When they want to see something, they either just program it into the DVR or access it through streaming sites such as Netflix or Hulu. In fact, the only series they regularly watch at the time it originally airs is "Game of Thrones," which has become "event" TV in our home.
But let's not shuttle those TV grids to the folks at "Antiques Roadshow" just yet. According to a report released late last year by Leichtman Research Group, 51 percent of U.S. households don't have DVRs. That means a lot of people likely still use those grids and guides to plan out their nightly TV regimens. And even many people who do have DVRs aren't able to record more than two shows at a time. Thus, the grid is useful when dealing with scheduling conflicts.
Meanwhile, believe it or not, old-school day-by-day scheduling still very much matters to the major broadcast networks as they battle for your attention. And it has a big impact on which shows stick around.
To wit: Last season's most popular new drama, NBC's "The Blacklist," might have been a hit no matter where it aired, but it got a huge boost from a strong lead-in audience provided by "The Voice" on Monday nights.
Likewise, CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" -- TV's highest-rated sitcom -- not only crushes everything in its scheduled time slot, but it provides a substantial audience to whatever show follows it. So, yes, a significant amount of viewers continue to consume television in a linear fashion.
And that's why networks try to arrange their schedules to attain good "flow" between compatible shows. It's no accident that ABC this season is airing three straight soapy serials -- "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal" and "How to Get Away With Murder" -- from prolific producer Shonda Rhimes on Thursday nights. The hope is that fans will hunker down for all three.
Scheduling can also be like a chess game between networks, with shows being deployed as weapons to blunt the momentum of a rival. A few years ago, NBC programmers ticked off their counterparts at Fox when they made a late change to place an episode of "The Voice" against the premiere of "The X Factor." The two musical reality shows went head-to-head, with "The Voice" winning handily.
That's why time slots still play a vital role. If a show you love is stuck in a bad or highly competitive time slot, there's a chance it may not garner the ratings it needs, or deserves. Along those lines, I'm curious to see how the Batman prequel "Gotham," Fox's buzziest new show, holds up on Mondays, where it will run into "The Big Bang Theory" (for the first part of the season) and "The Voice."
A few years from now, all this talk of schedules and lead-ins might be quaint. But for now, it seems, that TV isn't quite ready to go completely off the grid.