Easter TV: Why the Sunday Holiday Is Suddenly a Big Night for Television

Sunday TV
Clockwise from Top Left: Joe Alblas/LightWorkers Media/NBC; Paramount; WGN America; Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC; PBS
Sunday TV

Hallelujah and pass the remote: Easter Sunday is a big night for TV premieres this year.

NBC, Lifetime and PBS are all premiering brand-new series on the night, while the much-heralded return of Mad Men returns to AMC and WGN America brings back signature show Salem.

If your DVR is going into overdrive on April 5, blame a confluence of events: A rise in religious themed-programming in primetime; less competition, now that The Walking Dead has ended its season (and Game of Thrones doesn’t premiere for another week); and the timing of the holiday.

The networks usually avoid premiering new fare on holidays, and often even classify broadcasts that night as “specials” – meaning those episodes’ presumed lower ratings won’t be tallied into season averages. Last year, other than Game of Thrones and NBA playoffs, Easter was a rather quiet night on TV.

“Easter isn’t really that big of a programming night and is usually considered a lower persons-using-television night,” says one network scheduling executive.

But that changes this year. In 2015, as Easter falls on the first weekend of April, it seems like an obvious time for spring series launches (regardless of the holiday). And even though it’s traditionally been considered a light TV night, one NBC exec points out that Easter isn’t a holiday where many people are far from their television set. “It’s a holiday where people are pretty much at home by nighttime,” he says.

This year, NBC is looking to make some noise with the premiere of A.D.: The Bible Continues (9/8c), its big-budget religious series from Mark Burnett. The limited-event series opens with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, naturally lending itself to an Easter premiere. NBC insiders say they would actually have preferred to premiere the show a few weeks earlier, but the timing of the religious holiday was a natural hook.

NBC is promoting A.D. as a landmark TV event and is cultivating grassroots efforts to promote inside churches and religious organizations. Burnett’s History channel series The Bible opened to 13.1 million viewers in 2013, and NBC is likely expecting an even larger audience for the sequel.

NBC will also use the heavily promoted launch of A.D. to debut the military/government conspiracy drama American Odyssey right after, at 10/9c.

The Walking Dead is done, that’s important,” says one network exec on waiting until that juggernaut (TV’s No. 1 show among adults 18-49) is out of the way. HBO’s Game of Thrones, returning next week, is no slouch either – easily beating the broadcast network competition even though HBO is available in a fraction of homes.

At Lifetime, the network will premiere the new TV movie If There Be Thorns (8/7c), based on the V.C. Andrews book, followed by the premiere of the new Christina Ricci series Lizzie Borden Chronicles (10/9c), a continuation of the channel’s hit movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax.

Lizzie Borden will find competition in the second season premiere of Salem (10/9c), which WGN America is promoting as “witch war.”

Over at PBS, the pubcaster is in the game with Wolf Hall, a Masterpiece miniseries, set in the time of King Henry VIII, starring Damian Lewis as Henry Tudor and Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell.

All of those shows have a slightly more contemporary period piece to contend with: Mad Men, back for the second half of Season 7 on AMC (10/9c).

The other broadcast networks aren’t taking the holiday off, either: CBS has new episodes of Madam Secretary, The Good Wife and Battle Creek, while Fox has a new one-hour episode of The Last Man on Earth.

ABC, meanwhile, is bringing its perennial airing of the 1956 film The Ten Commandments back to the Sunday. The movie had been moved to Saturdays in recent years (last year, it averaged 5.7 million viewers on April 19, the night before Easter). But ABC, which aired the Hallmark Hall of Fame last year on Easter, no longer has that franchise. That prompted the move of Ten Commandments back to Sunday—perhaps along with the desire to compete against A.D. with a religious classic. “We think it will do well and we had the space to do it,” says a network exec.