Several years ago I read David H. Bain’s magisterial history on the building of the first transcontinental railroad, “Empire Express.” You may recall that there were actually two competing railroads — one running east to west across the wide-open (flat) Western Plains territory; the other starting in Sacramento and heading east. The primary focus of the book was on the latter — and much more difficult — line (“The Central Pacific”) which had to contend with all sorts of obstacles, such as scaling the northern Rocky Mountains.
The book is filled with fascinating details of how businessmen and scoundrels (sometimes indistinguishable) bent and broke just about every financial ethics rule imaginable to get the railroad lines to Promontory, Utah, where the golden spike symbolically linked the Central Pacific with the Union Pacific. My favorite passage from Bain’s history came toward the end of the book when railroad managers had to cover up all their business shenanigans from prying eyes (including the U.S. Government.) I quote from memory:
“First they cooked the books… and then they burned them, literally.”
The quote came to mind the second I read a blurb from AMC about their hit-series, “Hell on Wheels,” which is entering the second half of its fifth (and final) season on Saturday, June 11th:
“Hell on Wheels looks at the institutionalized greed and corruption behind the building of the Transcontinental Railroad as the race between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific intensifies.”
The show premiered in November of 2011, and dramatizes the travails of former Civil War Confederate soldier, Cullen Bohannon, (played by the actor, Anson Mount) who seeks work on the Union Pacific while seeking vengeance on the Union soldiers who murdered his wife. You won’t find much in common between Bain’s erudite “Empire Express” and AMC’s colorful “Hell on Wheels,” but this is television after all, and what’s required is some heightened form of entertainment & drama, which the show serves up in plenty: murder, mayhem, fighting, prostitution, the clash of cultures (Chinese, Irish, Native Americans), “good guys” vs. “bad guys”, you name it. In short, this is an old-fashioned, shoot-‘em-up western.
Without a lot of fanfare, “Hell on Wheels” premiered to spectacular viewing levels, and while recent seasons haven’t matched Seasons One & Two, we’re still seeing very respectable Live U.S. household ratings and shares that have been hovering around a 1.0 rating (and 1.5 share) over the past three seasons:
DVR Usage through the Roof
Although Live ratings for “Hell on Wheels” have declined from its premiere season to Season Five (in 2015), that doesn’t necessarily mean viewers have lost interest in the show. Indeed, when we look at 2015 DVR activity, we find that “Hell on Wheels” is attracting a massive audience, with DVR + 15 Day activity generating household tuning that is three times that of the Live-only audience:
Rural Setting… Rural Viewers
Given the western, rural setting of “Hell on Wheels” we decided to analyze Acxiom PersonicX Clusters to gauge just how rural skewing the audience is to AMC’s “Hell on Wheels.”
In a nut-shell, PersonicX is a household-level consumer segmentation analysis that divides practically every home in America into one of seventy unique clusters across an array of demographic, behavior-graphic and lifestyle characteristics. By matching the unique characteristics of PersonicX clusters to their set-top-box panel homes, Rentrak has created PersonicX HH ratings for all the programs they measure.
Out of 70 PersonicX Clusters, we found an even dozen with a minimum 120 cluster rating index (or higher) for “Hell on Wheels.” A quick perusal of the “urbanity” ranking below says it all. The very most rural clusters have the highest household ratings –a rank of 70 represents the highest rural cluster in the entire family of PersonicX Clusters:
Local Cable Advertising
Over the past twenty episodes of “Hell on Wheels” (Seasons Four & Five), nearly 100 local cable advertisers ordered 490 30-second spots across 34 Viamedia markets. That comes to an average of about 5 spots per advertisers (Source: B.I.G.SM database — Copyright © 2016 by Viamedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved)
In terms of local cable ad categories, “Hell on Wheels” departs significantly from overall company-wide averages and does so to a greater degree than any other show that we’ve blogged about in this space. The Automotive category (29%) is not that far off from the company-wide average of ~34%, but the next five largest categories certainly are: Furniture/Floor Cover category (21% vs. ~4-5% company-wide); Entertainment/Travel category (11% vs ~6% company-wide); Lawn & Garden category (10% vs <1% company-wide); Restaurant category (9% vs. ~3.5% company-wide) and Financial Services category (9% vs. ~4% company-wide):
A Split Final Season
As it did with “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” in their respective last seasons, AMC decided to split the final season of “Hell on Wheels”, with seven episodes having aired last July and August of 2015. The remaining seven episodes will be shown starting this June. It’s a bit of a risky programming tactic that is no friend of narrative continuity, but I’m assuming the AMC schedulers know what they’re doing. (For the record, “Mad Men” increased its Live U.S. household ratings in its final half season; “Breaking Bad” did not, according to Rentrak.) In any event, “Hell on Wheels” will be chugging into its last train station and it’s a pretty good bet millions of viewers will be either watching the action live… or DVR-ing it for another day.
For more information on Viamedia visit www.viamediatv.com
Written by Jonathan Sims, VP Media Research, Viamedia