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The Success Of Fox's 'Empire' Reveals A Few Do's And Don'ts For TV

Taraji P. Henson, left, and Terrence Howard star as Cookie and Lucious Lyon in the Fox TV show <em>Empire</em>.
Chuck Hodes
Fox TV
Taraji P. Henson, left, and Terrence Howard star as Cookie and Lucious Lyon in the Fox TV show Empire.

The TV industry is scrambling to understand the runaway success of Fox's Empire, the story of a family-run hip-hop music company that has set ratings records in its four weeks on air.

The questions, as always, are simple: Why are people drawn to this show? And how can a TV network pull it off again?

Defying the usual rules of television, Empire's ratings have risen each week it has aired, starting at 9.9 million viewers on Jan. 7 and most recently attracting 11.3 million last Wednesday.

That's a feat in an industry where shows usually decline a bit from their debut ratings. And it's a particular achievement for a show with an almost entirely black cast, led by Oscar nominees Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson and co-created by The Butler director Lee Daniels.

Though lots of different people are watching, Empire is a decided hit with black households; Fox says 62 percent of the show's audience aged 18 to 49 — the group network TV advertisers target most heavily — are African-American.

Even a mini-scandal involving multiple past allegations against star Terrence Howard of domestic violence and altercations with women hasn't slowed the show's momentum.

The show's success has led to headlines such as Vulture/New York magazine proclaiming "Empire Is a Massive Hit," and The Hollywood Reporter noting "Empire's Black (Ratings) Power," and Vanity Fair's story "Empire Strikes Back: Why Black TV Is Beating the Box Office."

It also means there are a few dos and don'ts for the TV industry to learn from the show's triumph. Here's my quick list:

Do reject the odd logic that says network TV shouldn't target people who watch a lot of television.

Statistics have long shown that black people watch more hours of TV than their white counterparts, but TV and advertising executives often defended programming lineups lacking in diversity by saying advertisers were more interested in paying top dollar for audiences that are hard to get, like young white males. (Coincidentally, these types of viewers often resembled the advertising and TV executives themselves.) Empire's success proves that targeting people who already watch lots of TV can still pay off, if enough of them show up.

Do respect the power of word-of-mouth.

Empire seems to be gaining audience in the same way shows such as Scandal have in the modern age: Viewers are talking up the show on social mediaand converting new fans each week.

Don't use the same strategy to target other ethnic groups.

Network TV has often responded to success in targeting black viewers by using the same tactics to create shows featuring Latinos and Asian-Americans, assuming they might find the same success.

But different cultures and nationalities often get lumped under the catch-all categories of Hispanic or Asian viewers, so creating a show which stars a Mexican family might not necessarily appeal to viewers from Puerto Rico. A show centered on Japanese-American characters might not draw viewers of Korean descent.

Empire seems to be working because it is telling stories that resonate with black viewers. It's talking about black families' struggles to accept gay people, sibling rivalries, couples separated when one person lands in jail and the struggles black women face for equality with black men. Crafting a world that feels real to black viewers is an achievement which reaches beyond the race of its characters to the heart of its storytelling.

Do reject the notion that white audiences won't watch a show featuring a mostly nonwhite cast.

Despite the '90s-era success of NBC's The Cosby Show, TV networks in more recent years have seemed skittish about presenting shows with predominantly nonwhite casts, fearing white viewers might feel excluded. Empire proves that isn't necessarily the case, as long as you root the stories in elements that appeal to a wide audience; the show's soap-opera element and the way it features quality, original hip-hop music are two examples.

Do learn from reality TV and cable.

So-called "reality TV" shows like Love & Hip Hop and The Real Housewives of Atlanta have told the same stories Empire now explores, in lower-profile venues. In fact, a number of cable channels have found success attracting black female viewers by imitating the example.

Oprah Winfrey's OWN channel saved itself by featuring shows like Welcome to Sweetie Pie's and Iyanla: Fix My Life. Two scripted series, The Haves and The Have Nots and Love Thy Neighbor, were developed by another Hollywood power who really understands black viewers, Tyler Perry.

Don't forget that TV's fragmentation makes this success possible.

One reason Empire's numbers look so impressive is because network TV has such a tough time drawing a crowd. New shows that hit 9 million or more in their first airing are considered hits these days, but back in the mid-'90s, shows were often canceled for earning ratings higher than that benchmark.

Average sitcoms once drew millions more viewers, like Kirstie Alley's Veronica's Closet, which had 35 million viewers. Modern shows also gain audience when DVR and other on-demand services are factored in.

The networks are slowly learning that, in a fragmented marketplace, it just might make sense to create some shows which appeal to underserved audiences who watch more TV.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.