'Empire' returns: Is the industry-changing show still a trendsetter?

When 'Empire,' which has a largely African-American cast, debuted in January 2015, the amount of and demographics of viewers it attracted drew interest. Is the Fox show still bringing in viewers today and what effect has the show had on other diverse shows being greenlit?

Chuck Hodes/Fox
'Empire' stars Taraji P. Henson.

“Empire,” the Fox music drama that became a big hit when it debuted in 2015, returned for the remainder of its third season on March 22.

The show stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson as the heads of a family, the Lyons, that is in charge of an entertainment company. Jussie Smollett, Trai Byers, Bryshere Y. Gray, and Grace Gealey co-star.

When the program premiered in early 2015, it surprised industry watchers with its ratings performance. Traditional wisdom is that curious viewers will tune in for the premiere of a show and then the program will shed watchers. Yet “Empire” climbed, with the show drawing the most total viewers for its season finale.

“Empire” has a largely African-American cast and it debuted almost at the same time as when #OscarsSoWhite started making headlines when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated a lily-white Oscars class. Deadline writer Nellie Andreeva noted the disparity in reporting on the “Empire” second episode ratings, writing, “As film pundits on Thursday morning lamented Oscar nominations as a setback for diversity when no black actors, writers or directors made the cut, diversity scored a major victory in TV that morning.”

As the show’s run continued, “Empire” also showed itself to be willing to take on topics of the moment such as the Black Lives Matter movement, with a 2016 episode of the program including Lyon sibling Andre (Byers) being attacked by white police officers.

Early in its run, “Empire” demonstrated that viewers across demographics would be drawn to a program with a largely African-American cast and that younger viewers would be, too. “Empire” came in at number two for viewers 18-49 – a valued demographic among advertisers – for the 2014-2015 TV season, ahead of such hits as “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family.” And Vulture writer Josef Adalian wrote of the show’s viewership in its first season, “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…. 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." 

Now that “Empire” is in its third season, the show is still performing strongly, though its ratings have fallen, and its success may have helped encourage network executives to greenlight programs with diverse casts. 

When the show aired its “fall finale” in December 2016, viewership was down from the same time a year before, but it still did well, with the program still bringing in viewers 18-49 in particular. 

In 2015, Los Angeles Times writer Meredith Blake credited “Empire” with encouraging TV networks to continue to bet on diversity. 

“With 'Empire,' diversity becomes the watchword on television,” Ms. Blake wrote and noted that the 2014-2015 TV season in general had drawn attention to the topic because ABC’s sitcom “Black-ish,” which centers on an African-American family, and “How to Get Away With Murder,” which stars Viola Davis, had become the highest-watched new comedy and new drama prior to “Empire” debuting. 

Meanwhile, USA Today writer Gary Levin wrote at the end of 2016, “Since ‘Empire’ took off in early 2015, Fox has added ‘Rosewood’ … and this fall’s ‘Pitch,’ ‘Lethal Weapon,’ and ‘The Exorcist,’ each with black or Latino characters.” 

“We recognized pretty quickly this was not about social good, this was about good commerce,” Gary Newman, co-chairman of Fox Television Group, told USA Today. “When you have a country as diverse as ours, you just have to have programming that appeals to different groups.” 

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