In North America, television networks feed their prime time programming in two blocks: one for the Eastern, Central, and Mountain time zones, and one for the Pacific, Alaskan, and Hawaiian time zones, to their local network affiliates. In Atlantic Canada (including Newfoundland) as well as Alaska and Hawaii, there is no change in the interpretation or usage of “prime time” as the concept is not attached to time zones in any way. Affiliates in the Mountain, Alaskan, and Hawaii-Aleutian zones are either on their own to broadcast delay by an hour or two, or collectively form a small, regional network feed with others in the same time zone.
In North America, the hours traditionally taken as constituting prime time are 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific and 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Central and Mountain Time Monday–Saturday. On Sundays, prime time begins an hour earlier, at 7:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific and 6:00 p.m. Central and Mountain, ending at the same time as on the other six days of the week. For cable networks, such as USA, TBS, and ABC Family, prime time is 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. all seven days of the week. Some networks such as Fox, The CW, and MyNetworkTV only broadcast from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., a time period known as “common prime”. Since September 2009, The CW and MyNetworkTV do not program Saturday or Sunday prime time at all, as The CW turned over its Sunday night schedule and MyNetworkTV its Saturday night schedule over to their affiliates. Also, over the past decade, the major American networks have come to consider Saturday prime time as a graveyard slot and as such have largely abandoned scheduling of new scripted programming on that night, although the networks still maintain a prime time programming schedule on that night, generally featuring rebroadcasts of programmes aired earlier in the week, movies, non-scripted reality programs and, occasionally, remnant episodes of cancelled series.
Prime time can be extended or truncated if coverage of sporting events run past its allotted end time. Since the “Heidi Game” incident, where NBC cut away on the east coast from a New York Jets/Oakland Raiders football game in its final minute of play in order to show a movie (and, in the process, missing an unexpected comeback by the Raiders to win the game), the National Football League began to mandate that all games be broadcast in their entirety. Due to this rule, game telecasts may sometimes overrun into the 7:00 p.m. E.T. hour. Fox previously scheduled repeats of its animated series in the 7:00 hour, allowing themselves to simply pre-empt the reruns if a game ran long. This was later replaced by an hour-long wrap-up show, The OT. In contrast, CBS does not, as its weekly news magazine 60 Minutes has traditionally aired as close to 7:00 p.m. E.T. as possible. If a game runs long, 60 Minutes is shown in its entirety at the conclusion of coverage, and the rest of the prime time schedule on the east coast is shifted to compensate. For example, if game coverage were to end at 7:30 p.m., prime time would end at 11:30 p.m..
However, in the rare case where the NFL game runs excessively late (8 p.m. or later), an episode of a series scheduled for later in the evening may be pre-empted (for example, Cold Case in October 2009 after the Bills-Jets game ran excessively late). In an extreme case, CBS's prime time can be extended past midnight during broadcasts of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament. This does not necessarily apply universally; in 2001, after an XFL game went into overtime, forcing the delay of a highly promoted episode of Saturday Night Live, NBC made a decision to cut off all future XFL broadcasts at 11:00 p.m.. NBC backed out of the XFL after the end of that season, leading to its failure.
Until the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulated time slots prior to prime time with the now-defunct Prime Time Access Rule in 1971–1972, networks began programming at 7:30 p.m. Eastern and Pacific / 6:30 p.m. Central and Mountain on weeknights. (That is, the 1970–1971 season was the last season in which the networks began prime time at 7:30.) The change helped instigate what is colloquially known as the ”rural purge”, in which rural-themed and older-skewing programs were disproportionately canceled. In the 1987-1988 season, NBC-owned stations in several cities experimented with airing a schedule of syndicated first-run sitcoms at 7:30 / 6:30 p.m. (known as Prime Time Begins at 7:30) to compete against syndicated reruns or game shows such as Wheel of Fortune on rival stations.
The vast majority of prime time programming in English-speaking North America comes from the United States, with only a limited amount produced in Canada (most of which consists of local adaptations of worldwide reality television franchises, e.g., Canadian Idol and So You Think You Can Dance Canada). The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission mandates quotas for Canadian content in prime time; these quotas indicate at least half of Canadian prime time programs must be Canadian in origin, but the majority of this is served by national and local news.
Likewise, the vast majority of Spanish-language programming in North America comes from Mexico. Televisa, a Mexican network, provides the majority of programming to the dominant U.S.-based Spanish broadcaster, Univision. Univision does produce a fairly large amount of unscripted Spanish-language programming, the best known being the long-running variety show Sábado Gigante, hosted by Chilean national Don Francisco. Univision's distant second-place competitor, Telemundo, produces a much greater share of in-house content, including a long line of telenovelas.
In Quebec, the largest Francophone area of North America, French language programming consists of originally produced programs (most of which are produced in Montreal, with a few produced in Quebec City) and French-language dubs of English language programs.
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