Fox’s Empire, now in its sophomore season, isn’t the record-breaking sensation it was in season one, but it’s still one of the most popular shows on network television. The winter finale pulled in nearly 12 million viewers, and the midseason premiere (tonight!) should perform even better, particularly in the key 18-to-49 demographic, where the show’s ratings have remained spectacular. Fox shouldn’t be too concerned with how Empire is doing here — it’s overseas they, and everyone else, might want to worry about.
“Middling.” That’s how the Hollywood Reporter describes Empire‘s ratings in the United Kingdom, where the first season averaged 717,000 viewers, “a mere 3 percent share, and season two has been worse, averaging a 2.2 percent share with 595,000 viewers.” The drama was moved to a smaller (read: less important) network in Australia, and shifted to an online streaming service in Canada. Why is Empire so huge here and so… not everywhere else?
Insiders say it’s because international audiences have yet to truly embrace diversity on the small screen. “These shows are a reflection of our society, but [they are] not a reflection of all societies,” says Marion Edwards, president of international TV at FOX. “Having a diverse cast creates another hurdle for U.S. series trying to break through; it would be foolish not to recognize that. We are telling our units that they need to be aware that by creating too much diversity in the leads in their show means … problems having their shows translating to the international market.”
TV has never been more diverse in the United States than it is right now. Not only are Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish very good shows, they also do very well, ratings-wise (for network sitcoms in 2016, that is). There’s Master of None, and How To Get Away With Murder, and Jane the Virgin, and Orange Is the New Black, and even the quietly progressive The Walking Dead, which has “three mixed-race couples, a lesbian couple, and a gay couple.” It’s not a hard-and-fast rule that diversity = terrible ratings overseas (University of Iowa professor Timothy Havens notes that Shonda Rhimes’ shows are popular everywhere because they feature “black faces but non-ethnically specific kinds of stories”), but it’s still a worrying trend when a network’s head of drama is saying things like “diversity is an issue with our audience.” Plus: