'Empire' Breaking Barriers With Overseas Viewers

Courtesy of FOX; iStock

When Fox first screened the show for international buyers last year, most passed. Now that it's a hit, they're taking another look.

A version of this story first appeared in the May 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The Cosby Show was the first — and last — television series starring an African-American cast to become a worldwide hit. But the U.S. success of shows like Fox's Empire, ABC's Black-ish and How to Get Away With Murder, and, in the pay TV sphere, Starz' Power and Survivor's Remorse, is beginning to attract the attention of international broadcasters and is opening up the global market for more diverse primetime programming.

Succeeding on the global market is the last glass ceiling. Despite diverse casts on international ratings juggernauts like CSI: Miami, Grey's Anatomy and NCIS, no series in the past 30 years with an African-American lead — much less an entirely black cast — has become a worldwide hit.

A Fox executive that first pitched Empire to global networks says if the show had had an all-white cast "it would have sold out immediately." Starz executive vp worldwide distribution Gene George admits selling Power and Survivor's Remorse — the latter a half-hour comedy about a basketball star from the ghetto made good — has been a struggle.

"It's been hard to get [international broadcasters] to think outside the box," he admits.

But then the shows hit the U.S. airwaves and everything changed.

Empire's phenomenal ratings — viewership increased week-over-week, every week, closing with a season high of nearly 17 million total viewers — convinced buyers to take another look.

"When it started to air — every week it grew and grew — many important clients of ours have contacted us to rethink what they were doing," Marion Edwards, 20th Century Fox Television Distribution's president of international TV, told THR in March.

Empire is now sold out in virtually every major territory worldwide. Big terrestrial broadcasters like Germany's ProSiebenSat.1, Network Ten in Australia and France's M6 — networks with market positions similar to Fox's in the U.S. — have acquired the series. In the U.K., where U.S. shows of any kind have a hard time getting on major networks, it went to E4, Channel 4's smaller digital pay TV outlet. Fox International Channels, which is a smaller pay TV player in most foreign territories, has picked up the show for multiple global markets including Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and South Africa.

Empire has even conquered Asia, a notoriously difficult market for U.S. shows, with deals for such key territories as China, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong.

ABC has had similar success with How to Get Away With Murder and Black-ish. Even Starz's more cutting-edge fare has found plenty of global buyers. Power, a crime drama about a drug dealer trying to go straight, which Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson executive produced, has sold to some 115 territories, including a recent deal with Sony Picture Television's pay TV outlet AXN in Germany. Deals with several major territories, including France, the U.K. and Australia, are pending. Survivor's Remorse has closed deals across Africa and the Middle East as well as Canada and Scandinavia, helped by Starz's second-season renewal of the comedy starring Jessie Usher.

"I think nothing succeeds like success, nothing breeds imitation like success," says Greg Drebin, senior vp worldwide marketing at 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, which is selling Empire worldwide. "The success of these shows [in the U.S.] has meant international networks are more open to them."

Jay Hunt, chief creative officer at Channel 4, said it was Empire's ratings performance that convinced her to acquire the show for E4, where it premiered April 28. "I think the show will resonate with Britain's black community, certainly, but it has the potential to cut through and draw a much broader audience," she tells THR.

Britain is currently undergoing a public debate about on-air diversity. Last year several prominent members of the media industry, including actors Idris Elba and Emma Thompson, Doctor Who writer Russell T. Davies and directors Stephen Daldry and Richard Curtis, sent a letter to the executives of Britain's main networks urging them to increase the number of ethnic minorities onscreen and behind the scenes in the industry. Hunt admits debates about diversity in Britain "couldn't be hotter at the moment" but sees an opportunity with a new wave of U.S. series with more diverse casts, including The CW's Jane the Virgin, which features a mainly Latino cast, and which E4 has also picked up for the U.K..

For the majority of intentional networks, however, diversity is, at most, a secondary concern. It's been the critical and commercial success of these shows that have driven global sales, not their casts' ethnicity.

Starz's George says Power was pitched to global buyers as a "Sopranos for the hip-hop generation" while Drebin at Fox says Empire has sold so strongly because foreign broadcasters see it as "a shameless telenovela," a kind of high-drama series hugely popular worldwide.

"What's lost in always focusing on Empire as a 'African-American' show is that this is simply a great drama," says Drebin. "Almost anyone who watches [an episode] or two is hooked."

Similarly, one German buyer tells THR when she first saw the pilot of Black-ish, "I thought it wouldn't work on a major German network, not because of the cast but because it seemed a very niche comedy. But after a few episodes it's become clear the show is much broader. It's a real family sitcom of the kind that could easily work here on primetime." The show is part of Disney/ABC's package deal with leading German commercial broadcaster RTL, but the channel has not yet decided where, or if, it will air the show.

As these series roll out worldwide over the coming months, it will become clear whether international audiences are ready to welcome more onscreen diversity. So far, the limited evidence is mixed. How to Get Away With Murder, featuring Viola Davis, had a strong start in Australia, the U.K. and Canada. Black-ish has also done well up north, as has Empire, though the show, starring Terrence Howard, has initially failed to deliver ratings down under. The premiere of Empire on E4 in the U.K. drew an overnight average audience of 552,000 viewers with a 2.7 percent audience share, which was 17 percent above E4's average for the slot.

In the end, the global success, or failure, of this new crop of U.S. series will come down to a myriad of factors, including local competition, individual time slots and regional tastes. But with the sheer number of primetime series being snatched up internationally, it seems it's more a question of when, not if, we will again see a global hit featuring an African-American cast.

"I applaud the broadcasters who have been willing to take the risk with these shows," says Drebin, "because if they work globally, they could be a stepping stone to a broader acceptance of more diverse casting, worldwide."

Twitter: @scottroxborough

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