AMC’s big hope in holding off the premiere of Hell on Wheels till November was that having The Walking Dead as its lead-in for a few weeks would give the newcomer a boost. After all, younger viewers have never exactly taken to the western genre (if Deadwood had done gangbusters, HBO never would have been so eager to kill it), or to series set 150 years in the past.
Mission accomplished, at least for the first week. Sunday’s pilot episode was the second highest-rated premiere ever for AMC, behind only last fall’s kickoff for The Walking Dead. It drew 4.4 million total viewers, 2.4 million of whom were in the key 18-49 demographic. AMC president Charlie Collier congratulated Joe and Tony Gayton, saying “We look forward to sharing the lives of these characters in the weeks and months to come.”
But while the news was good for AMC, there are a couple of cautionary notes to consider. Hell on Wheels lost about 30 percent of the audience for The Walking Dead – not disastrous if it stays like this, but something to watch going forward. And the premiere audience paled next to the numbers for Broken Trail, the 2006 western miniseries that is still the highest-rated program of any kind in AMC history. For whatever reason, a good portion of the prospective audience for westerns didn’t seem interested in Hell on Wheels.
To this point, the new show does not have the sort of unquestioned critical support that most other AMC series have had (even if they eventually lost that support, such as with The Killing). But if these ratings hold, the channel won’t mind much.