The Empire Effect: What We’ve Learned From Its Phenomenal First Season (and What We Still Don’t Know)

Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX

The Nielsen juggernaut and pop-culture phenom that is Empire wraps up its first season tonight, capping an exhilarating three-month run that saw ratings records shattered and proved network television isn’t going to accept its much-predicted demise without a fight. Its success has also prompted a predictable round of real-time vivisections from rival networks and others within the TV business trying figure out why co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s show worked, and what it all means — in no small part so they can determine how to replicate it. After chatting with several of those industry insiders, as well as Empire executive producer/showrunner Ilene Chaiken, we came away with four major lessons to be drawn from its success — and three as-yet unanswered questions about its future. (Click here to see the "Empire Effect" in seven charts.)

Audiences were ready for a show that was just fun.
While much has (rightly) been written about the role of race in Empire’s rise, not nearly enough attention has been paid to another key factor: It’s a fully realized, brilliantly executed soap opera — arguably the best to hit prime time since Desperate Housewives and the most over-the-top since the days of Dallas and Dynasty. Scripted soaps targeted at broad swaths of viewers were once prime-time staples, but they’ve been in short supply of late. Sure, a smattering of soap-ish series have done well recently on network TV— Dick Wolf’s Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D., Shonda Rhimes’s two youngest Thursday shows. But they’re mostly hybrids, incorporating soapy DNA into procedural dramas or, in the case of Scandal  and How to Get Away With Murder, sharply drawn character studies. (Seriously: Olivia Pope is a super-complicated person.) Over in cable, networks such as OWN, ABC Family, and VH1 have series more clearly identified as soaps, but they’re targeted at narrow niches of the audience (see also: ABC’s Nashville and Revenge).

By contrast, Empire is a reinvention of the Big Spectacle serials of the ’80s. And to quote the title of one of its biggest hit songs, it makes no apologies about its mission. It wants to transport its audience into another world, to let them experience the glamour that comes with wealth and celebrity even as they relate to the (heightened) drama of a dysfunctional family. (This is also the formula mined so well by the Kardashian clan and other manufactured reality soaps.) The genius of Empire is that Daniels and Strong managed to bring back what worked about the soaps of yore without making the show seem like some cheap clone of another era. As Empire exec producer and showrunner Ilene Chaiken notes, Empire is “grand and fabulous in all the same ways” Dallas or Dynasty was. “But it’s also really authentic. It’s about something, and it tells a much more authentic story than those shows ever did. It’s not a confection.” Indeed, Empire isn’t simply the “black Dynasty” that Lee said he wanted to create. It’s Dynasty with just enough depth to make it work in an age of endless viewing options. Execs at rival nets hurriedly trying to figure out how to replicate Empire’s magic should keep that in mind.

White viewers will watch a series boasting a mostly minority cast.
This lesson should’ve been learned after The Cosby Show conquered comedy in the early 1980s. And yet for decades, network execs either consciously or unconsciously ghetto-ized series with largely minority casts. The handful of attempts to launch shows with primarily African-American actors were usually treated as efforts at reaching a “niche” audience (the comedies on the now-extinct WB and UPN) or given less-than-desirable time slots (NBC’s Undercovers). But Empire, along with ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat and black-ish, may finally convince programmers that American audiences don’t discriminate when it comes to great television, and that shows with barely any white people in them can still attract big audiences. The key: Networks need to treat these kinds of shows like any other big bets they believe in.

ABC showed its faith in black-ish by slotting the show behind its top-rated comedy, Modern Family. And Fox, in addition to scheduling Empire adjacent to the still-successful American Idol, gave it as big of a marketing push as anything it had launched in years. This doesn’t mean networks shouldn’t also try to specifically target nonwhite audiences, unleashing tailored campaigns to make certain communities aware of new shows that might appeal to them. It’s undeniable that Empire’s meteoric growth has primarily been powered by African-American viewers, and that Fox made sure they knew the show was coming. But lots of white and Latino folks are watching the show, too — and that’s because Fox refused to put Empire in a box. 

Great promotion matters.
In addition to being massive, Fox’s marketing of Empire worked because it started early and consistently innovated. Since it was a mid-season show, the network was able to begin the earliest germs of its campaign for Empire all the way back in May, not long after it was picked up to series. But that also meant most episodes of the show had been filmed before the first one aired, giving network promo-makers access to nearly a full season’s worth of OMG moments (rather than just whatever was in the pilot or first episode). Fox also took things a step further by capping each of Empire’s first ten episodes with an extended, 90-second teaser touting coming attractions — not just for the next week’s episode (standard practice), but for the entire season to come. That meant viewers were being promised appearances by big-name guest stars weeks before they popped up, or dramatic fights long before they happened. Reality shows (and even some network dramas) have for years created such super-teasers after a show’s first episode. But by keeping up the practice for most of the season, Fox appears to have broken new ground: It took time that otherwise might be sold to advertisers or used to promote other network shows, and instead devoted it to keeping Empire audiences invested for the long-term. The strategy also meant Fox could play up the fact that each episode of Empire was being presented with “limited commercial interruption,” subtly encouraging viewers to watch live or maybe not hit the fast-forward button on the DVR.

Technology is a new show’s friend.
’s same-day ratings have been impressive, but the show has also been a powerhouse on digital platforms. The series premiere earned an average audience of 5.6 million viewers via video on demand (VOD) services such as Hulu and — the most of any Fox show ever, and nearly 2 million more than the previous record holder (a 2012 episode of Family Guy). Subsequent episodes have also done incredibly well on VOD, outperforming almost all past Fox shows. (The show has also shattered records and been a consistent No. 1 on Comcast’s Xfinity on-demand platform since its premiere.) These big numbers aren’t just a by-product of Empire’s overall success: Fox’s print and on-air promotion for the show has actively encouraged potential viewers to seek it out digitally, specifically directing consumers to websites and apps where they can watch the show. While networks for years now have been touting delayed viewing that takes place via DVRs, they’ve recently become obsessed with getting audiences to embrace VOD. That’s because consumers almost always have to watch the ads on a VOD play of a show (there’s no zapping, as with DVR recordings). Plus, new tech lets networks insert ads specifically targeted to different audiences, opening up new revenue streams. In the case of Empire, Fox has also wisely allowed all episodes of the show to remain on VOD, rather than limiting potential catch-up viewers to just the last five or six hours. While there’s no concrete evidence this has helped boost the show’s live ratings, the fact that same-day audience for Empire has grown every week certainly suggests it’s not hurting it, either.

And now, here's what we still don’t know …

Can the show get even bigger next season?
is TV’s biggest and fastest-growing hit show in a decade (since the 2004–05 launch of Desperate Housewives, House, Lost, and Grey’s Anatomy). At first blush, the idea of a show already so massive getting even bigger in a second season seems absurd — particularly in an era when freshman hits now regularly take notable drops in second seasons (Blacklist, New Girl, 2 Broke Girls). And yet, industry insiders suggest Empire actually could defy recent odds and add audience when it returns. The key, they say, is white and Latino audiences, as well as men. As it is, Empire is literally doing Super Bowl–size ratings among African-American audiences. In some black demos, it’s making the Super Bowl look like a high-school football game: Nielsen says that nearly 53 percent of African-American women ages 35–49 who have TV sets watched the March 4 episode of the show. By contrast, “only” 4.3 percent of white women in that same age group saw the show — and just under 3 percent of similarly aged men watched. Now, it’s worth noting that those ratings for white viewers still qualify Empire as a hit; they’re bigger than anything that aired on TV this past Monday. But with the right marketing, TV types we’ve spoken with believe Fox should be able to get those latter numbers even higher. The same is true with African-American men: The March 4 episode was seen by nearly 37 percent of viewers in that demo, an astounding figure and yet still about 30 percent below the black female demo. “There’s still so much upside there,” says one TV exec at a rival network.

The months between Wednesday’s season finale and whenever season two begins will also represent a huge opportunity for Fox to recruit even more viewers (while also keeping the show fresh in current fans’ minds). Networks often pull shows from VOD in the off-season in order to preserve their long-term value in syndication; the episodes may sometimes pop up again on VOD — or Netflix or Amazon — a few weeks before the season premiere. Given Fox’s willingness so far to innovate with Empire, it’ll be interesting to see if the network decides to sacrifice some theoretical syndication cash in order to keep the show online all summer long. Or perhaps it’ll strike a deal to make all episodes available early on a subscription VOD platform such as Netflix or Hulu Plus. And while networks lately have sworn off airing reruns of serialized shows over the summer — the ratings have generally become too low to do so — perhaps Empire is so big that Fox will have a go at summer encores of the show. Maybe add in some extra musical content or deleted scenes and market it as the Empire Summer Remix?

How much Empire is too much Empire?
Because it was slated for mid-season, and since original music needed to be produced for every episode, this first cycle of Empire has consisted of just 12 episodes. Almost nobody in the TV business believes there won’t be more hours produced for season two; Chaiken herself basically conceded in an interview for "The Vulture TV Podcast" that there will be. “It’s going to be more than 12, and fewer than 22,” she said. “The conversations that we’re having are about how to do more episodes, but … make sure that the writers can continue to write scripts that are as good as we want them to be and [that] we can continue to produce music at the level of quality as the music in season one.”

Fox insiders aren’t talking about just what the final number will be, and it appears no decisions have been made. But when we suggested to Chaiken that Fox might do a couple of short seasons — perhaps eight episodes in the fall, and another eight in late winter or spring — she indicated such a plan might work and had been broached in discussions. However the episodes are aired, it’s hard (though not impossible) to imagine Fox not wanting to bring the show back earlier than next January. Not only does the fourth-place network need Empire to anchor its fall launch, but keeping the show off the air for nine months risks hurting its momentum.  

What will the show’s impact be on the rest of television?
Television loves nothing more than to copy itself: Friends begat a zillion shows about young singles looking for love, Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo inspired a zillion redneck reality shows. More than a few think pieces have (and will be) written about how networks are likely to cast more people of color in the wake of Empire (and the lesser but still substantial success of How to Get Away With Murder and Fresh Off the Boat). And Hollywood trades such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter have both written stories quoting execs claiming that’s already well under way, citing pilots in the works featuring nonwhite actors such as Eva Longoria, Ken Jeong, Whoopi Goldberg, Wesley Snipes, S. Epatha Merkerson, Danny Pudi, Laverne Cox, and Mike Epps in leading roles.

But most pilots never get picked up to series, so these casting notices don’t mean much right now. There are also very few new shows in the works featuring mostly minority casts à la Empire, and even fewer that aim to be a straight-ahead soap. (That’s because of timing, not network indifference to the success of Fox’s show: Most of the projects in contention for next season were ordered to series before it became clear just how big Empire would be.) Going forward, it’s likely there will be attempts to duplicate the Empire formula — particularly at Fox. Barring an unlikely (for now) move to 8 p.m., the network can’t regularly schedule a show behind Empire to take advantage of its huge audience. But it can promote such fare during Empire, which could give an extra boost to Fox pilots such as Hollywood-set soap Studio City or the Morris Chestnut–led crime procedural Rosewood. Even more likely is that Fox development execs are already quietly looking for new Empire-compatible projects that could be ready to premiere by the middle of next season. And slightly longer-term, it would be shocking if Fox doesn’t ask Lee and Strong to consider producing some sort of Empire spinoff. After all, Dallas begat Knott’s Landing, and Beverly Hills, 90210 birthed Melrose Place. Why should a universe as rich as the one in Empire be limited to a single hour?