"Hell On Wheels" Has Thrived In TV’s Graveyard

The third season of the AMC Western moved to Saturdays, the night that’s (rightly) considered death for a television show. But somehow, it’s defied the odds.

Anson Mount, right. AMC

As a still young entry in the field of quality scripted television, AMC tends to make a lot of noise. Most of the time, it’s the sound of fans clapping: for the triumphs of Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead or Mad Men. Sometimes, though, the noise is TV critics, entertainment reporters, and armchair experts jeering at AMC’s occasional bizarro — or at least fan displeasing — moves, like the recent announcement that the final season of Mad Men will be split into two halves over two years. Or about the news that not only will the Saul-centric spinoff of Breaking Bad go forward, but so will a Walking Dead offshoot. (One spinoff is fine; two announced within a week seems desperate.) And canceling The Killing (again) after it had gotten good didn’t go over particularly well either.

But a lot has been written about all of those things. Let’s take a look instead at one of AMC’s quieter shifts — one that could have resulted in show-killing, but instead, appears to have worked well: Hell on Wheels’ surprising success on Saturday nights.

Saturday nights! They were once the marquee night of American television. And they still are in the U.K. Here, Saturday Night Live still exists, of course, and draws a crowd. But primetime is a dead zone. Other than at BBC America, HBO (which puts the premieres of its new movie offerings there), and the newly-created Pivot, programmers have essentially abandoned Saturdays. To use Nielsen-speak, the HUT levels — that’s “Households Using Television” — are simply too low to put anything there.

So when AMC moved the third season of Hell on Wheels, its drama set in the post-Civil War West during the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad, to Saturdays at 9 p.m., it seemed like a death sentence.

Instead, the Anson Mount-led show, which has its finale Saturday, has done nicely there. Compared with its Season 2 averages, when it aired on Sunday nights, Hell on Wheels is down slightly in Live+Same Day viewing, but only slightly: 2.1 million viewers versus Season 2’s 2.4 million. As viewers start to catch up over the three-day and seven-day periods Nielsen also measures, that drop is erased. Its Live+3 average for Season 3 is 3.1 million viewers (the same as it was in its second season) and its Live+7 average (through six episodes) is 3.3 million, which is actually up a little bit from Season 2 (3.2 million).

Of course, Hell on Wheels is not attracting the Youngs! It’s a Western. It’s on Saturday nights! But its demographic numbers among 25 to 54 year-olds are fine, especially with time-shifting (in Live+7, 25-to-54 ends up being about 40% of the audience). And it’s doubling the channel’s pre-Hell on Wheels average rating in that time period. Perhaps most importantly, since AMC has so many more hours of possible programming in its film library than it does in its original series, Hell on Wheels has served as a complement to its all-day Saturday theme of Western movies. (Hell on Wheels hasn’t yet been renewed for a fourth season, but AMC is pleased with its performance.)

Any fan of television knows that Sunday nights have become impossible; there are just too many shows on at the same time, and it’s killing us all. Weeknights are a challenge, too, especially if you’re trying to sample new network shows to see if you like them. Shows that might be on the margins simply have to try to find new slots, and hope that an audience follows them. It doesn’t usually work. This time it seems like it has.

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