Fox’s 'Empire' Strikes, Then Strikes Again

Fox Television Group chairman and CEO Gary Newman was working out on an elliptical machine when overnight Nielsen ratings for Empire were due. Knowing that an email bearing early data from the previous evening would arrive around 8 a.m., he exercised with phone in hand. Estimates for Empire from Fox’s research department had been conservative. Newman was hoping it would hold 90% to 100% of its American Idol lead-in.

He got his wish, and more. “I saw the number and literally stopped the elliptical to enlarge [the message] and make sure that I was looking at it right,” Newman said. “It was just so unexpected.”

Nielsen fast nationals for Jan. 7 showed that Idol’s new season had premiered with a 3.0 live-plus-same-day rating among adults 18-49. Empire had debuted to a 3.7. When final ratings came in, it would rise to a 3.8, tying ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder for the season’s top series premiere.

Empire kept rising in subsequent episodes, to a 4.0 for its second installment, then a 4.4 for its third, making it the highest-rated drama on broadcast thus far this season. No drama to finish in broadcast’s top five had grown its ratings in its second and third weeks since ABC’s Moon Over Miami in 1993. Empire’s fourth episode dipped to 4.3, but was up 3% in total viewers from the previous week.

Newman and Dana Walden, heads of Fox’s studio operation, took over the broadcast side in July following the departure of Kevin Reilly. This season, with shows ordered and scheduled by Reilly, Fox is in fourth place in the ratings.

But Empire was developed under Newman and Walden at 20th Century Fox Television. When they became network heads, they identified it as their top priority for midseason.

“When we were looking at our marketing budget, we decided to prioritize Empire in a way that it had not been budgeted to be prioritized,” Newman said. He noted that affiliates played a key role in promoting the series, with several hosting screenings and clearing local time slots for two making of specials ahead of the premiere.

For a drama featuring an all-black cast set in the recording industry, Fox employed a marketing strategy, Newman says, “designed to over-index with African-American viewers,” who now make up more than 60% of Empire’s audience. Women were also targeted. Fox bought ads on female-skewing cable networks and in women’s magazines and promoted the show during its NFL telecasts—which, Newman said, deliver “a very balanced audience,” allowing the network to reach women in large numbers “and also have the benefit of reaching men at the same time.”

Women have driven the show’s success with viewers 18-49. From Jan. 7 through Jan. 21, Empire’s closest time slot competitor in the demo has been ABC’s Modern Family. Among men 18-49, Empire has averaged a 3.0 and Modern Family a 2.6. In women 18-49, Empire leads with 5.1 to Modern Family’s 3.7.

Empire’s ratings will likely flatten out in the coming weeks, and Newman expects some of the live audience to shift to delayed viewing. But he is encouraged by the show’s ability thus far to retain viewers from week to week, which he said has been critical to its rare ratings growth. He points out that ratings for the second half-hour of the show’s premiere were even with the first half-hour.

“While we’re bringing in new viewers, we’re also retaining the viewers that we have,” he said. “I think that is an incredibly important measure of the potential success of a show.”