This story first appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
People are seeing that shows with people of color can make money,” Taraji P. Henson told reporters days after Empire‘s second episode solidified its status as the highest-rated new series of the 2014-15 TV season. “When things make money, people are interested.”
The actress might not be surprised that her Fox family soap, which climbed to nearly 15 million viewers in time-shifted ratings, is the success story of the winter. But few could have foreseen it would grow live ratings for its second and third episodes, an unheard-of feat during the DVR era. And Empire owes much of those early spoils to its black audience.
The hip-hop drama from co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong and executive producer Brian Grazer counts 62 percent of its adults 18-to-49 viewership as African-American, according to Nielsen, and the first two episodes averaged a massive 17.1 rating in that demo (compared with a 3.9 rating in 18-to-49 in live-plus-same-day). “Our goal was to make this show an event for a core group of people and make it really tantalizing for a really broad group of people,” says Fox Television Group COO Joe Earley. “It’s broad and niche at the same time.”
Luring black viewers, women in particular, involved aggressive advertising on cable networks VH1 and Bravo (Fox wanted The Real Housewives fans), segments on nationally syndicated hip-hop radio stations like New York’s Power 105.1 and more than 40 influencer screenings — many planned with lifestyles-marketing firm Liquid Soul, which made a similar push for black audiences in 2013 with corporate sibling Fox Searchlight’s 12 Years a Slave.
Earley says he has been eager for a chance to target ethnic audiences. Few would blame him: Black viewers watch 42 percent more traditional (live) TV than the U.S. composite average, or 201.4 hours a month. “They are being underserved on television,” emphasizes Earley, who describes Empire‘s initial performance among black viewers as “absolutely overindexing compared to typical primetime.”
“Diversity” has become a buzzword for success this season thanks in part to Empire as well as ABC’s Black-ish and Thursday night Shonda Rhimes block (which includes No. 2 freshman How to Get Away With Murder, starring Viola Davis). But while Rhimes’ shows perform exceptionally well among black viewers, Black-ish, featuring black leads Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, counts a relatively modest 23 percent of its 18-to-49 audience as African-American.
To sustain Empire‘s success, Fox is emphasizing in promotions that viewers can “catch up” via VOD. The network is stacking the first season in on-demand libraries so word-of-mouth will not be useless later in its 13-episode run. “This is very encouraging for Fox,” says Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media, noting the network’s fourth-place status. “It’s a one-hour show, yes, so it’s not going to pull them up by their bootstraps like three hours of American Idol did for so many years … but it could really help close the gap.”
62%: 18-to-49 Viewers who are African-American
17.1 RATING: African-Americans 18-to-49
16%: Growth between episodes 1 and 3
5.9 RATING: Adults 18-to-49 after live-plus-3 lift
367: Days since a broadcast drama pulled a live 4.4 rating in adults 18-to-49
21: Years since a top-rated new drama grew each week after its launch