With unprecedented competition from cable networks and streaming services, plus viewers who don’t watch their shows live—or even on a traditional TV set—broadcast networks face epic challenges to creating small hits, let alone the massive kind they used to be known for. Audience fragmentation and time-shifting have driven their ratings down to historic lows. Ratings that a couple of years ago would kill a show are now considered marks of success.
For the moment, though, Fox’s Empire shows broadcast still has some of its old mojo left.
For the past nine weeks, there has been a mix of excitement and a bit of puzzlement from Fox executives over the unparalleled ratings of Empire. The gravity-defying success has had those inside the halls of Fox, “Are you kidding me…again?” every Thursday morning when they see the show’s numbers rise every single week.
“Everyone involved with the studio and the network said, ‘We’ve got something here,’” said Fox Broadcasting COO Joe Earley.
Since its Jan. 7 premiere—when it tied ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder as this season’s top premiere—Empire has done nothing but defy practically every TV convention. It has drawn the largest rating in the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demo for a broadcast drama since Lost’s finale in 2010, on pace to finish as this year’s top new series and drama in the demo. Among total viewers, the show has not experienced a single decline.
“There is no algorithm for this,” said Jonathan Davis, president of creative affairs for 20th Century Fox TV. Indeed, Empire’s success cannot be attributed to any one single factor. Instead it was a confluence of several—an underserved audience that has proved it will come out in droves if you give them a reason; two high-profile leads in Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson; original music from heavyweight producer Timbaland; and soapy, watercooler storytelling that begs for live viewership. Those main ingredients flavored the recipe for the biggest broadcast television show in years.
As the hip-hop drama’s first season concludes this week, B&C sifted through the numbers, spoke to the creative and exec team behind the show and surveyed industry opinion to determine the five biggest takeaways from Empire’s success for Fox, and for TV overall.
1. Diversity Is Good, Broad Appeal Is Better
Aside from the added PR benefit of airing minority-fronted shows, diversity has been good business for the broadcasters this season.
“We appeal to a young audience and young people today live in a multicultural world,” said Earley. “It’s not just social responsibility, it is actually part of the business.”
Many of the successful newcomers this year have featured series with diverse casts, from ABC’s African-American-led How to Get Away With Murder and Black-ish to Fresh Off the Boat—the first Asian-American-led sitcom in 20 years—and The CW’s Jane the Virgin, which is fronted by Gina Rodriguez (who is of Puerto Rican descent). Even Fox’s other breakout show this season, Gotham, featured Jada Pinkett Smith in a key role.
“Shows with people of color can make money,” said Taraji P. Henson, who plays fan-favorite Cookie Lyon on Empire, during the show’s TCA panel in January. “With the wave of successful ethnic shows that are on television, people want to be part of it.”
However, just casting minorities doesn’t automatically equal success. The shows themselves have to be good and offer something unique that can be relatable across all ages, genders and demographics. “We go out to find the most authentic stories to tell that we think will be relatable to large audiences,” said Davis, who argued that the studio doesn’t approach its development process by just simply having minorities on TV. “We’ve never looked at it from that standpoint.”
In praising ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat (which hails from 20th Century Fox TV), Earley mentions how it’s more than just a show for Asian-Americans. “It’s a universally relatable show about what it’s like to be an outsider.”
Heading into pilot season, networks are continuing to ride the diversity wave. While many of the pilots might resemble the box office from the past decade-plus with adaptions of films Minority Report, Hitch and Limitless among those in contention for series pickups, more minorities are being cast in lead roles. ABC has Mike Epps starring in its remake of Uncle Buck and tapped Paula Patton for the lead in Runner, while transgender actress Laverne Cox will topline CBS’ legal drama Doubt.
“You’re seeing success across networks in this regard,” said Earley. “I think we’ll see some of those themes continue into next season.”
2. January Is the New September
For years, the broadcast industry has focused on late September as the main time to launch its new series—this season saw 13 new shows debut between Sept. 22 and Oct. 5.
Fox’s fall slate largely continued their recent struggles, with pricey misfire Utopia casting a particularly long shadow, and only Gotham starting out as a clear ratings winner.
Midseason has been an entirely different story. Along with Empire’s success, comedy Last Man on Earth has been the strongest performer on the network’s Sunday lineup. And Fox is not the only one to win in January. CBS’ Odd Couple remake has finally ended Matthew Perry’s post-Friends slump and the network’s newest CSI has performed solidly. Even ABC’s American Crime has managed to hold on to a decent chunk of the How to Get Away With Murder audience.
Viewers get hungry for fresh material after weeks of repeats and holiday programming, so January has become arguably just as important a launch pad as September.
Earley is quick to mention that Fox has been among the biggest champions of the winter debut, having slotted American Idol in the back half of the TV season for years. He also credits the January premiere as being a major factor in Empire’s success, being able to pair it with Idol and using the massive platform from Fox’s NFL telecasts. “When you do have a football platform heading into the championship games, you have a really broad audience… You don’t want to squander it.”
3. VOD Stacking Lets Viewers Join Midstream
The role played by video-on-demand and streaming stacking rights in Empire’s success is unquestionably one of the near-term impacts of the show.
Unlike most broadcast series, which only offer the most recent five episodes of current seasons of their shows, Fox and 20th Century TV worked out a deal that allowed for all of Empire’s episodes to be made available on non-linear platforms after their broadcast.
“If we’re going to be able to still get people to come into it after episode 6 we knew the series would benefit from them being able to start over from the beginning,” said Earley, who added they are still seeing heavy viewing for Empire’s Jan. 7 premiere. Will Somers, Fox’s senior VP of network research, says records are being broken on those non-linear platforms. “The non-linear behavior is pretty closely paralleling what we’re seeing on television.” The show’s average multiplatform 30-day audience is 21 million viewers per episode.
Strategy around platforms and the TV ecosystem’s inherent limits due to turf protection has become a sore point for broadcasters, especially with serialized shows that require viewers to keep up with the story lines. CW president Mark Pedowitz expressed his frustration during his TCA session in January that his network cannot make available all aired episodes of its critically praised but modestly rated Jane the Virgin, which made it difficult to capitalize on Rodriguez’s Golden Globe win. Similarly, ABC’s Marvel-produced Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which aired its second season in 10-episode batches with a three-month break in between, was not able to grow its audience when the show returned this month, likely due in part to the fact that prospective viewers had no way to catch up on the first half of the season, unless they wanted to pay for it on iTunes.
Networks have found themselves caught in the middle between the cable and satellite distributors, who remain their biggest customers, and the studios that produce the shows, which fear that video-on-demand access will hurt their syndication and subscription VOD deals.
Earley credits Fox’s unique structure—studio chiefs Gary Newman and Dana Walden have oversight of the broadcast network, a structure now prized by the industry for every show—as being a major factor in cutting the stacking deal. However, he cautions that it might not become an industry standard just yet to make full seasons available.
“The stacking decision is made show-by-show,” he said. “One size doesn’t fit all.”
4. Marketing Matters
Earley recalls that one of the first things Newman and Walden did upon taking the reins at the network from Kevin Reilly, who greenlit Empire, was to make the show their main midseason priority. “The teams were inspired to go for it and come up with every conceivable idea that we could to create a multilayered campaign,” he said.
That marketing campaign involved identifying myriad different verticals to market the show to, including women who like dramas, women who like soap operas, the LGBT community, African-American communities, and people who watch unscripted shows that have high drama in them.
“Every time a piece of material was created, it was looked at through those lenses to see which part of the buy is it going against,” Earley recalled, describing the overall strategy as “niche and broad at the same time.” The aggressive marketing campaign included sponsoring a Nov. 22 pay-per-view boxing fight, and promotions during Black Friday to Empire-themed jewelry and Adidas shoes.
Earley said they followed the model that had been used for series such as Glee and New Girl, which initially appeared to be targeted at a single demographic, but which Earley described as being “much more complex than it appears on the surface.” That included appealing to male viewers who might have looked at the key art and assumed it was a female-targeted show. And with music being a major part of the Empire DNA, Fox was able to feature promos that had lighter music as well as ones that were built around a much heavier hip-hop sound.
“Had we only sold [one] aspect of the show, I don’t think it would have opened as big as it did,” he said.
5. Prime Promo Real Estate
Fox has been in a bit of transition the past few years, as reality stalwart Idol has grown old and no longer can be counted on to prop up the network’s overall ratings. Current series such as New Girl and Mindy Project have seen their ratings tumble since their debut seasons; even last year’s success, Sleepy Hollow, slumped this season, despite airing behind the popular Gotham.
In that context, Empire’s value for Fox is providing yet another massive platform from which it can launch new series. NBC has used The Voice, for example, as a key weapon in its worst-to-first turnaround.
As with any blockbuster success in Hollywood, however, the future offers a fair share of intrigue and uncertainty. There have been no decisions on when to bring Empire back for season 2. With an episode order likely to be well south of Dick Wolf territory, there is a strong possibility it won’t return until midseason a year from now. While some of the show’s subject matter might make it a risky proposition to move it up an hour to the 8 p.m. time slot, Earley notes that Fox is looking to maximize its promotional value. “It helps whatever programming is around it,” he says, adding that keeping viewers aware of it during what could be a 10-month hiatus is crucial. “We’re going to want to make sure it has that market support that it had for its launch.” Fox is selling the original songs from the episodes on iTunes, which should help keep it in the minds—and ears—of viewers.
The enormous success of Empire might also lead to a battle with the show’s mercurial creator Lee Daniels, whose filmography (Monster’s Ball as a producer, Precious and Lee Daniels’ The Butler as a director) has netted Oscars and sizable box office but also inflamed tensions at times with distributors and financiers. Daniels’ inclination to tussle with studios, by his own admission, could inform conversations about the road ahead for Empire. For one thing, its first season consisted of a cable-like 12 episodes but it’s highly likely Fox—which still has a schedule riddled with holes, particularly on Tuesday and Thursday—will want an increased episode order.
“I don’t know what we’re doing yet,” said Empire executive producer Danny Strong during a March 12 conference call with the media. “It hasn’t been decided, but I don’t think 22 [episodes] is the discussion.”
It is in Daniels’ constitution to fight as hard as he can to control the episode order—and other creative decisions—instead of automatically acceding to Fox’s wishes. During a promo stop at last month’s aTVfest in Atlanta attended by B&C, Daniels even hinted that the challenge of trying to get along with the Hollywood establishment over a long run, instead of the compressed period of a feature film’s lifespan, was actually part of the appeal of Empire.
“When Danny came to me with the idea, it was a film,” Daniels said. “And I just thought, ‘You know what? How do I grow as an artist?’ And that’s to play with a bunch of people messing with my stuff. That’s when I said, ‘Why not go to a studio and a network and make it a television thing?’ To see if I would jump off a cliff, if I’d kill somebody, you know. Could I be a big boy and play with the suits?”