MBPT Spotlight: The Secret of Empire's Success: Fox's Mid-Season Gamble Shows That Culturally-Relevant Programming Can Drive Mass Appeal

What was the single most watched television program by African Americans on all of television this past February? Here's a hint: it's part soap opera, part hip hop, and all about star power. And no, it's not the Super Bowl; we're talking about Fox's hit show Empire. More African Americans tuned in for Empire's eighth episode than the Super Bowl, and the audience only got bigger for episodes nine through twelve. Talk about scale.

You can't overstate what the show has accomplished in its freshman season, and you can definitely learn from it. So, what is Empire doing, and just as importantly what can we learn and re-apply elsewhere?

To begin, a little background. Empire ran 12 episodes over 11 weeks, and made the unusual choice to make every past episode (vs. the standard most recent 4 episodes) available on demand so as to enable new viewers to play 'catch up' as the water cooler hype continued to build. This choice, and the ever valuable word-of-mouth paid off, with Empire enjoying a nearly 70% audience growth rate over its run. In fact, it grew audience every week of its run – virtually unheard of – running neck and neck with The Walking Dead for leadership in the coveted 18-49 demo by the end of its run. Equally interesting, while Empire enjoys a sizeable African American viewing audience, White and Hispanic viewers accounted for a full third of the viewing audience. Indeed the non-African American audience for the show's finale (8 million strong) was enough to outrank plenty of other hit shows' total audience, including Big Bang Theory, Modern Family and American Idol.

And the dollars followed. Initially run with limited commercial interruptions, Empire's scarce ad time became a hot commodity, and by the finale some advertisers were paying up to $600k for a thirty second spot… that's NFL football money!

Empire provides us tangible proof that culturally relevant programming, a well-designed show focused on a key minority audience can generate mainstream ratings. Revolutionary. How many potentially great shows were never green lit because they lacked sufficiently broad appeal to be seen as commercially viable? Perhaps we are entering a brave new world where the trade-off between mission (creating content that connects with culturally unique groups that make up the American melting pot) and margin (advertising dollars) might well be broken. What does that mean for advertisers and content producers alike? A lot.

The Empire phenomenon points to two keys to success that networks can learn from:
1.      Content is still king
2.      Streaming and binging is actually great way to create appointment viewers

Clearly you need strong acting and a great story; content will always be king. And content that expresses the American experience for different groups – whether it is aspiration, pain, drama or intrigue. The right content can turn the old wisdom upside-down. If a program focused on a specific group can draw more viewers from that group than the Super Bowl, suddenly you're talking about a scale audience. Empire's top notch ensemble cast, modern soap opera plotlines, and cultural relevance are all critical ingredients.

Building a hit in the digital era also means taking advantage of new platforms – embrace streaming, don't run from it! More access points mean more hooks to catch more fish. Not only do streaming and VOD enable “catch up” viewing, but the binge-ability of these platforms feeds addiction value. Empire built a huge audience in its prime time slot, but was likely also one of the most streamed binge-worthy shows of the season. Similarly, Game of Thrones has generated record ratings for HBO, even though it is the most pirated show in the streamosphere. We are calling this binge-to-catch-up phenomenon “pre-syndication” – it is monetizeable even when you stream it for free, because it creates more super fans who start tuning in to the weekly new episode. And that means advertising dollars that were previously unimaginable for content of this nature.

So, in the end, what does Empire teach us? We have broken the historic trade-off between mission and margin. You can have your cake and eat it too, as well-crafted programming that addresses culturally relevant issues can win a broader audience, opening up entirely new pockets of profit potential. Our suggestion to programmers and marketers alike? Don't think too narrowly about the opportunity in multi-cultural programming. The right content, and a little buzz, can generate mass appeal.  We'll see how Empire performs in its sophomore season, which has been picked up for an expanded 18 episodes starting this fall. And we're betting that other networks will seek to capitalize on this newfound recipe for success. Will you?

Don Johnson is a Principal with The Cambridge Group, and has nearly 15 years experience working in and consulting to the consumer products, media, retail and travel industries, both in the US and internationally. Don has extensive experience working with CEOs/ CMOs and Boards of Directors across a variety of strategic and organizational issues.

Chris Fosdick is a Principal with The Cambridge Group, and has built demand-driven growth strategies for clients primarily in the media, retail, consumer goods and technology areas. Prior to joining The Cambridge Group, Chris worked in the media sector with a primary focus on developing and marketing television and online content, working for cable brands such as MSNBC, USA Networks, Pax/Ion and HBO.

The Cambridge Group is a strategy consulting firm with more than 40 years' experience applying understanding of profitable demand to help clients develop and execute focused business strategies to dramatically improve revenues. In 2009, The Cambridge Group became a wholly owned subsidiary of Nielsen. Together, no other company provides a more complete understanding of what consumers watch and buy, and why.