What is it about Fox’s mega-hit Empire that has made it one of the most successful TV shows in the past decade? The ratings for the first episode proved there was already a built-in audience for a show detailing the drama behind an urban music label: 9.9 million people watched it. Many TV shows have their biggest ratings for their debuts; everyone checks it out, says “Meh,” then goes back to their regularly scheduled programs. Not Empire. This week’s episode hit 13.8 million viewers — a 39% increase from the pilot — in the coveted 18-49 demographic. No show has grown that quickly and immensely since House in 2004.
With a cornucopia of viewing mediums and even more programs to watch these days than ever before, these are monster numbers. When I Love Lucy was a ratings juggernaut in the early ’50s — the 1952-53 season (67.3 Nielsen) is the highest rated TV season of all time — it benefitted from having little-to-no competition or alternatives. Unless there’s only one broadcast showing the same thing over the 2,000 channels you own, that record will never be beaten. A better watermark is American Idol, which gained popularity in an era where we have streaming options along with a scores of cable channels. The 2005 season of Idol is the best performing season of a TV series (17.6 Nielsen) since the 1998 season of ER. With Empire’s ratings steadily climbing for seven weeks, it’ll be interesting to see what the average viewership is at the end of the season and how it compares to that season of Idol.
Much of the show’s success can be owed to the music. Idol — and then Glee — proved that music is a driving factor of viewership in a primetime network slot no matter the genre. Since we’re talking about genre, “urban music” — or hip-hop and R&B — comprises 36% of the top 25 songs on Billboards Hot 100 chart. It’s popular, and a show that can take advantage of that built-in interest, like Empire, is ahead of the game from the start. (It’s actually surprising that the show’s original music is not topping the iTunes right now.)
Speaking of the original music, it’s awesome. Super producer Timbaland put together a slick soundtrack, with each episode seemingly debuting a new song to bob your head to while watching the Lyon family tear each other apart. It’s a smart device. People who don’t love the show will still tune in for a fresh new jam each week.
Another factor making the show a ratings success is race. Let’s face it, shows featuring an almost all African-American cast are few and far between; it’s basically a niche market. Empire capitalizes on that by providing a show that’s highly polished and produced — much more than the programs on BET — and with seasoned actors that are well-known (Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard). That’s called cornering the market, and Empire does it successfully.
There’s one other thing making Empire the biggest show of the season: variety. It’s the spice of life, and Empire is sprinkling it on damn near every scene. If you haven’t noticed by now, this modern-day soap opera has no qualms with touching upon every single charged topic it can get its hands around. There are issues with homosexuality, extortion, murder, struggles with addiction, ALS, adultery, relationships between old and young (a.k.a. cradle-robbing), money-laundering, struggles with mental instability and bi-polar syndrome, incarceration, drug-dealing, politics, and much more. In fact, one of the only topics that doesn’t get a lot of play is racism, which is refreshing (although Courtney Love does drop the phrase “Black Shack” in one episode).
Creators Danny Strong and Lee Daniels have found the formula for creating a hit show by — on the surface — catering to a niche market. But, with the slew of ideas they confront in the series, they are catering to everyone. See what they did there?