It's a fate that has befallen many a promising TV show: The network moves it to a Friday or Saturday night time slot to live out its last few episodes in front of a dwindling audience before cancellation. Most TV fans know the drill by now and can read between the lines when one of their favorite shows gets that treatment.
But the truth is, weekends don't have to be a death sentence.
The final half-season of AMC's railroad Western "Hell on Wheels" premiered Saturday night — yes, Saturday — after three successful years in the weekend time slot. AMC justified the unconventional move in 2013 by citing the high ratings old Western movies had been getting on the channel over the weekends, but there is reason to believe other shows could have success there as well. The rise of time-shifted viewing — DVR, on-demand and online viewing — and the increasingly lower ratings threshold required to sustain a cable series make the long-stigmatized time slots potential opportunities for smaller series.
“Not only has [airing ‘Hell on Wheels’ on Saturday] worked, but the world has changed dramatically during the show’s run,” AMC President and General Manager Charlie Collier told International Business Times. “It’s not about the overnights. It’s about finding out where the audience is. It just starts on premiere night, but the entire business has shifted to measure what happens in the days after.”
AMC moved “Hell on Wheels” to Saturday ahead of the series’ third season. Up to that point, the show had been airing on Sunday night, which is traditionally reserved for prestigious dramas on which networks make their name.
At the time, AMC had a very specific rationale: Westerns fans watch a lot of TV on Saturdays. Collier told the New York Times in 2013 that AMC's Western movies were regularly drawing as many as 500,000 viewers. The network felt confident that original content in those viewers’ favorite genre would translate into solid Saturday ratings.
It worked. Ratings for “Hell on Wheels” actually went up in Season 3 from an average 2.1 household rating (the percent of households with TVs tuning in) to a 2.3, according to Nielsen. That translates to well over 3 million viewers per episode, comparable to the numbers "Mad Men," one of AMC's most heralded series, was pulling in during its seven-season run. The ratings for "Hell on Wheels" have more or less held steady in the two subsequent seasons, proving that Saturday did not kill the artsy Western.
So is AMC looking to program on weekends more in the future?
“You have to measure each at bat as a different opportunity,” Collier said. “With ‘Hell on Wheels,’ we supported it with some very smart programming in that genre. That was unique. ... It was the right show at the right time with really no competition.”
The reluctance is understandable. Programming on weekends still has a stigma. The conventional wisdom is that younger viewers go out on the weekends and, as a result, are not at home watching TV. Part of the reason AMC rolled the dice with “Hell on Wheels” was that ratings data suggested the show’s audience skewed older, which made it more likely that they would be home on a Saturday night.
This was not always the thinking. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was commonplace for some of the biggest shows on television to air new episodes Friday and Saturday nights. Landmark series like “The Brady Bunch,” “The Partridge Family” and “The Odd Couple” composed NBC’s Friday lineups in the early 1970s. CBS’ now-legendary Saturday lineups in the mid-1970s, which consisted of “All in the Family,” “MASH,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show” and “The Jeffersons,” are considered by many critics to be among the best shows in television history.
“People went out in the 1970s to 1980s too. This idea that people are not going to watch TV on weekends is a completely new one,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “History shows us that if you put up quality programming, people will watch.”
So what else fueled the stigma? Thompson attributes broadcast networks’ collective decision to back off of those time slots to the explosion of cable television in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Once cable began to eat away at the network oligopoly, now they are not just competing with all the other things people do on the weekends, they are competing with everything else on TV,” Thompson said.
When the broadcast networks gave up on the weekends, they left behind a sizable programming hole. It is still uncommon even for cable networks to program original content on Friday and Saturday nights. “Hell on Wheels” is not the only case, but they are rare. But that fact might provide an opportunity.
In the current “New Golden Age” of television, the market is saturated with original programming. Just about every network, broadcast and cable, is competing to win Sunday nights, and every network must fight to stand out in all the static as more and more players get into the game and online streaming further expands the size of the competition.
In this climate, many series, especially on cable, are surviving with ratings that would have meant a quick cancellation just a few years ago. Shows like AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” and FX’s “The Americans” have earned late season runs with just a few million viewers per episode. While those lower ratings might not be as directly appealing to advertisers, awards-buzz series and shows that appeal to loyal, niche audiences can help networks strengthen their brand strength and make the case that advertisers get more bang for their buck with their programming. With that lower ratings threshold for success, weekends could provide a suitable venue for other niche series besides Westerns.
This is all compounded by the fact that so-called time-shifted viewing has drastically reduced the importance of a show’s premiere night performance. With millions of viewers skipping the first running and watching later on DVR, on-demand or online, simply getting a show out into the world is sometimes all a network needs to do.
“Forget DVRs; there were no VCRs when the broadcast networks were airing weekend lineups in the 1970s,” Thompson said. “It should be even less of a problem now.”
“Hell on Wheels” has certainly benefited from time shifting, picking up an extra few million viewers per episode in the days following their Saturday debuts.
“There are seven nights to program, and Saturday is one of them,” Collier said. “You want to put the show in the best possible spot to succeed, and now success doesn’t just mean premiere night.”
Watch the trailer for Season 5 of "Hell on Wheels" below: