When I wrote last week about the improbable problem of too much good TV, several of you noted that the problem is compounded by just how much of it gets concentrated on Sunday nights between 9 and 11. That’s the night that HBO made its signature, and Showtime, AMC and others have followed. The new era of On Demand, streaming and multiple plays throughout the week makes this less of an issue for some, but if you like to talk about your favorite shows the day after they air – and if a lot of them air on the same night at the same time – it gets tricky.
AMC has already tried expanding beyond Sundays by moving its reality TV bloc to Thursday nights(*), and today the channel announced its first scripted move away from Sundays in quite some time, as the third season of “Hell on Wheels” will air on Saturday nights at 9, starting August 3.
(*) Which once upon a time was the home of “Mad Men,” before AMC executives decided to move in on HBO’s turf starting with the second season.
When you’re a cable channel breaking into the world of original programming, having a destination night can be an advantage – even if, of late, most of the channels seem to pick the same night. You know to go to AMC on Sunday nights for “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad,” to HBO on the same night for “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire,” etc., and you knew for years to go to FX on Tuesday nights for “The Shield,” “Nip/Tuck” and company.
Once you become associated with a particular night, though, it can be hard to branch out, even if your inventory starts to move beyond the shelf space on that night. FX has successfully expanded to Wednesdays and Thursdays, but HBO has failed on three separate occasions to colonize Monday nights, whether with a hit (“Six Feet Under”) a mid-tier player (“Big Love”) or boutique shows (“Bored to Death” and “Enlightened”).
But with “The Killing” brought back from the dead and a new series to slot in “Low Winter Sun,” Sunday space was getting tight for AMC. So to Saturday “Hell on Wheels” goes, and AMC will use the show to build an entire night of Western-themed programming. (Today, the channel acquired the rights to a bunch of John Wayne classics, including “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “El Dorado” and “The Shootist,” to add to its already large Western library.)
“Hell on Wheels” has always seemed a bit miscast on Sunday nights, bridging the gap between “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.” It’s not a bad show, but it’s a B-series on a channel that defined itself with A’s. Sending it to another night, and surrounding it with more men with big hats and six-shooters will distance it from easy comparisons to AMC’s best series. On the other hand, it’ll make comparisons to some of the greatest Westerns ever made (which also won’t be flattering) that much easier.