After starring in AMC’s last big western hit, “Broken Trail,” Robert Duvall said “The English have Shakespeare, the French have Molière. The western is ours.” And if any network is known for the grand western, it’s AMC. Combine the genres thriving onscreen right now and you get “Hell on Wheels.” Vengeance shows are becoming very popular (take ABC’s “Revenge”) and 2010’s “True Grit” showed that Americans crave good westerns. “Hell on Wheels” takes those elements, throws in a troubled, uneasy partnership between an ex-Confederate soldier and a freed slave (played by Common, upping the ante with the male demographic) and becomes an epic saga about the 1800s and post-war payback.
“There seems to be an appetite for westerns, and we had a sense of that because of how well they perform on our air,” said Linda Schupack, SVP of marketing at AMC. “But there hasn’t been a television series in awhile so we saw an opportunity there. I think that was the bet we were taking and it was great to see it realized.” AMC took advantage of another hit that touches on western themes, “The Walking Dead,” now “Hell on Wheels’” lead-in, and launched the railroad saga alongside its Fearfest horror movie programming last October, then used homepage takeovers on primarily male-oriented sites to drive tune-in.
“We try to be true to the genre, and with a western, you want to trigger those things that people respond to in westerns, which is the sweeping landscape and these sort of large, grand themes,” Schupack said. “Whatever we can do to come at a property in a new and different way, but still speaking to the audience that we’re seeking for tune-in, that’s what we’re about.”
In this case, AMC partnered with country music star Jason Aldean and the Country Music Awards for a radio promotion that got fans into a special concert with Aldean and a “Hell on Wheels”-themed train ride into Nashville for the CMAs.
“Hell on Wheels,” its poster touting that “Blood will be spilled, lives will be lost, men will be ruined,” was also able to promote itself as a grandiose epic and a personal revenge and historical venture, becoming AMC’s second-highest series premiere in the network’s history, after “The Walking Dead.”