How ‘Empire’ Became One of Network TV’s Biggest Shows
There aren’t many shows out there quite like FOX’s Empire. The dramatic take on the modern hip-hop industry truly has it all: Intrigue, betrayal, scheming, you name it. But within the story, the show manages to balance its more musical elements in a way that no other competitor has quite managed so well. Its musical interludes don’t feel forced like Glee, and the performances feel more bombastic than those of Nashville (essentially the country music counterpart to Empire). In a time where musical television is largely played out, here we have a show that managed to turn the medium into something entirely different while still using a tried and true formula.
Empire is a show that specializes in pulp drama, with creator Lee Daniels having pulled much of his inspiration from the infamous soap opera, Dynasty. The series expertly infuses only the most valuable aspects of soap television into a primetime hit, lays on a killer soundtrack, and then leans on its incredible cast to deliver the final product. The end result is a beautiful combination of solid writing, entertaining music, and a story that practically begs you to binge-watch.
But what was it that turned Empire from underdog into the second most watched show on television behind The Walking Dead? It certainly didn’t start out the smash hit that it is now. For one, FOX marketed the absolute living hell out of the show leading into its premiere. When it finally first hit the airwaves in early January of 2015, it debuted to 9.8 million viewers and a 3.7 rating, making for FOX’s biggest premiere in over three years. Even that was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the show’s potential though, as the growth only proliferated from week to week.
A clever marketing strategy from FOX was key in gathering more viewers every week. Debuting midseason made it so the network could advertise it during primetime for their other most-watched properties during the Fall. All the while, it wasn’t hard to garner buzz once it debuted, with each episode of the series going straight to Hulu directly after airing. What happened after this was largely unprecedented over the last two decades. The show grew 80% from its premiere to the end of the season, culminating in an absolutely monstrous finale that hauled in almost 17 million viewers.
The age of streaming worked in FOX’s favor in a big way for Empire, giving them a perfect venue to ensure no new viewers felt like they couldn’t catch up if they missed the opening weeks of the season. This strategy is continuing to pay dividends even now, with all 10 episodes of the show still available to stream on Hulu leading into the Season 2 premiere. According to the most recent data, Empire‘s streaming audience was upwards of 5.6 million between Hulu and Fox.com, with VOD acting as a main focus for the network. This strategy has yielded actual, tangible results, with the show growing in ratings and viewers in each subsequent week of airing, with streaming acting as a boon to new fans.
There are many out there who theorize that Empire has only begun growing. Slate notes that up to 53% of African-American women in the 35-49 demo tuned into the show, for what they cite as “Super Bowl-size ratings.” That being so, white audiences are still in the single digits percentile in that same demo for both men and women. This means an enormous untapped well of viewers is still out there, that could continue to help Empire continue its climb to the top of the mountain. Season 2 premieres September 23, so the wait is officially on.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest