Fox Plots 'Empire' Season 2: Lee Daniels Courts Oprah, Pushes for Less "Opulence"

Empire Illo - H 2015
Illustration by: Thomas Kuhlenbeck

Empire Illo - H 2015

TV's hottest show is about to get a big Emmy push as executives discuss plans for guest stars, season two timing and a potential tour.

This story first appeared in the March 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Every Wednesday afternoon, FOX Broadcasting's David Madden offers himself a reminder: "Gravity exists," he says. "This is going to be the week that Empire levels out or maybe even falls a bit."

But for more than two months, the newly installed entertainment president's cautionary message hasn't proved necessary. Despite pre-launch predictions of a 1.8 rating in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic, the hip-hop-themed drama bowed to a 3.8 in early January — and has grown more than 50 percent during the eight weeks since, a greater increase than any other new broadcast series in a decade. Empire's March 4 episode notched a staggering 5.8 rating (14.3 million total viewers), making it the top-rated drama on broadcast television. Now, as the series co-creator Lee Daniels describes as "black Dynasty" is set to wrap its first season March 18, the fourth-place network — down nearly 25 percent this season, even with Empire — is shifting its focus to sustaining the show's megahit status.

Partner Columbia Records dropped Empire's first album, featuring songs by season one guest stars Jennifer Hudson and Mary J. Blige, on March 10, and Fox will kick off the show's Emmy campaign with a screening and Q&A at the TV Academy two days later. While execs weigh other key decisions, including whether to air Empire repeats this summer, they've been pushing heavily for viewers to catch up on Hulu and Fox Now, where the pilot continues to draw 100,000 views a day. (Studio 20th TV already has suitors sniffing around about syndication opportunities, but no formal discussions have begun, according to an insider.)

Also being discussed internally is season two timing, with Madden noting he "wouldn't be surprised" to see the series come back before midseason. (Fox has struggled to retain viewers after long hiatuses for The Following and Sleepy Hollow and historically has flatlined in the fall ratings.) What's more, he says Empire will return with more than the first season's 12 episodes, though how many more is a topic of much debate. Co-creator Danny Strong says he's OK with an increased order — given the nature of the storytelling and original music, it won't be a full 22 — but Daniels is vocal about his desire to stay at 12, even suggesting he'll fight an increase: "Bring it on," he tells THR.

What Empire won't have when it returns to Fox next season is a collection of soapy companion shows, the byproduct of a development season already underway when Empire launched big. Instead, the network's batch of pilots is more a reflection of fall breakout Gotham, with a handful of genre offshoots, including Minority Report and Frankenstein, in the works. "As we start the next development season in the summer, the impact of Empire will be very much present," says Madden, careful to add, "I'd love us to have shows that satisfy the same audience that we're drawing with Empire, but we also can't just live off of one item on the menu."

Looking forward, a cast musical tour a la Glee is on the table (though it has been deemed infeasible this hiatus), and an international push is key to Empire's growth strategy. Although the series has generated enthusiasm overseas, Marion Edwards, 20th Century Fox's president of international TV, notes that took time and ratings success that was impossible to ignore. In fact, when Edwards began screening the pilot for international buyers last spring, she was surprised by the widespread disinterest. "They thought the show was cast with people who potentially couldn't work in their markets," she says, referring to the show's African-American cast led by Oscar nominees Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. "And music is hard because you can't dub it."

But that international interest level began to increase considerably when buyers saw the amount of marketing muscle Fox had put behind the show (Empire and Gotham consumed the lion's share of the network's marketing dollars this season) and then the eye-popping ratings it started to garner. By week three, Edwards had multiple broadcasters in key territories eager to get a deal done. She cites the U.K. market, often a strong indicator of European heat, by way of example: "We had no offer and no interest [prelaunch], and now we have three broadcasters vying to get it."

The creative team is set to take a break before season two planning begins in earnest, but Strong and showrunner Ilene Chaiken have been busy bulking up the writing staff. "I wanted to bring in some playwrights because we have these delicious soap turns but we also have very layered character development," says Strong, who has been courting emerging African-American talent. Meanwhile, Daniels is in L.A. in mid-March and intends to share his ideas. Among them: He'd like to incorporate more of the poorer-class African-American experience into the storyline. "I think we've seen the opulence," he says, "but now we have to go back to where they come from."

The producers likely will discuss the deluge of requests they've received from potential guest stars and directors, too. Daniels has been most struck by Spike Lee, who he says has reached out about helming an episode. "That's when I realized what a beast Danny and I have created," says Daniels. (With more famous names expected for season two, there figures to be more offscreen headaches as well. According to multiple insiders, Macy Gray's season one arc was scrapped after she exhibited erratic behavior on the show's Chicago set.) The producers, who also include Imagine's Brian Grazer, have made approaches, too. Daniels cops to logging multiple calls to pal Oprah Winfrey to try to get her on the show.

"I tell him: 'Lee, it's not enough that you've taken every viewer possible on Wednesday night. Now you want me to leave my own network?' " says Winfrey, to which Daniels howls with laughter, "I'm wearing her down!"