Building an Empire: how Fox's hip-hop drama broke a 23-year-old ratings record

Empire is the only show since 1992 to have its ratings rise for its first five episodes. Credit the network’s targeting of an African American audience

Do you remember 1992? The top sitcom was Roseanne, the Redskins won the Super Bowl, and it was the last time that a new show rose in the ratings each episode for the first five weeks it aired. Empire, Fox’s Shakespearean-flavoured hip-hop drama, beat that record last Wednesday. The crazy thing is that Nielsen, the company that tracks the ratings, changed their system in 1991, so the record might go back even further.

Empire has bucked the trend of how network television shows usually rate. They are so hyped by the network that everyone tunes in for the premiere. After that, the audience tends to decline before levelling out after a few episodes. That is not the case for Empire, which had 9.9 million viewers for its first episode at the beginning of January. (It also had a higher rating in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic than its lead-in, the former juggernaut American Idol.) The most recent episode, last Wednesday, saw 11.96 million tune in, up from around 11.5 million the week before. To make it even more desirable to Fox, the show averages about 15 million viewers each week once DVR viewership is factored in. That makes it one of the top shows on all of TV.

How did it get there? First, Empire – which has a cast which is almost all black – targeted the African American audience. Black viewers watch live television 42% more than the average American, meaning they watch the ads – which makes them great for networks. Fox reached out to the African American community through targeted screenings of the show before it even launched, turning the premiere into an event. For the first episode, 62% of people under 50 who watched were African American. This season we have seen other shows targeted at audiences of colour, like ABC’s Black-ish and How to Get Away with Murder, also have a great deal of early success.

Black audiences are particularly valuable early adopters because they overwhelmingly use Twitter to discuss television. Last year, Pew research found that 22% of African Americans use Twitter but only 16% of whites. Last week’s episode of Empire inspired more than 366,000 tweets while it aired, more than any other show on broadcast or cable (take that, The Walking Dead!) and more than former champ Scandal.

All of this noise on social media makes more people want to tune in to see what they’re missing. But there is another word-of-mouth advantage that Twitter doesn’t quite explain. That’s just how damn crazy Empire is, which is why everyone is telling their friends to check it out.

Created by The Butler director Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong, the show tells the story of a dying hip-hop mogul (Terrence Howard) who must leave his music business, Empire Records, to one of his three sons. Making things difficult for him is his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P Henson), who just got out of jail and shows up to take back her half of the company that she paid for with money she made dealing drugs. The pilot included a scene where Cookie beat one of her sons with a broom.

Like Scandal and other popular soapy dramas, the plot is told at breakneck pace, and the narrative is laced with irony. Both Courtney Love and Naomi Campbell have recurring roles on the show (as a drug-addled former singer and a predatory woman sleeping with a younger man, respectively), and we’re already neck deep in the show’s first murder investigation. Viewers are tuning in to see just how far the show is going to go and exactly what Cookie, the second coming of Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington, will do next.

This is all very big business for Fox, which has already renewed the show for a second season. In my initial review of the show, I pointed out that the music, mostly created by Timbaland, was subpar, but it has drastically improved (Drip Drop is a jam) and subsequently launched some of the singles seen on the show up the iTunes chart, especially R&B sizzler Keep Your Money.

While it looks like the viewers for Empire are starting to level off, Fox certainly has a hit on its hands, one that is even bigger than initially predicted. But with the speed and audacity of the storytelling, the real question is: how long can Empire reign supreme?


Brian Moylan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Super Bowl XLIX breaks TV ratings record in US for second year running
Nielsen rating means football extravaganza was on nearly half nation’s TVs and 72% audience share was highest in championship game’s history

Alan Yuhas in New York

02, Feb, 2015 @10:25 PM

Article image
Lee Daniels hip-hop drama Empire heading to E4
The acquisition comes after massive ratings success in the US, as well as a chart-topping soundtrack album overseen by Timbaland

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

07, Apr, 2015 @12:30 PM

Article image
Oscars ratings down 58% to new record low
Early numbers suggest ceremony, which saw Nomadland triumph, watched by 9.85 million Americans, down from 23.6 million in 2020

Benjamin Lee

26, Apr, 2021 @6:10 PM

Article image
Empire: new footage of Lee Daniels' hip-hop TV drama released
Trailer: The Butler and Precious director is moving to the small screen with his music industry saga, starring Terrence Howard as label mogul Lucious Lyon

Guardian TV

27, Oct, 2014 @9:22 AM

Article image
Empire: the outrageous black family drama that’s changing the look of US TV
Audaciously honest on black issues, Lee Daniels’s family saga has won a huge audience that television had long ignored – and a big fan in the White House

Sarah Hughes

08, Feb, 2015 @12:05 AM

Article image
Is Lee Daniels' rags-to-riches R&B drama Star better than Empire?
The show shares similarities with the ratings hit but a more intriguing character arc and a hint of darker issues suggests it might be the savvier choice

Dave Schilling

15, Dec, 2016 @8:45 PM

Article image
Empire finale: after all the drama, what can we expect for season two?
There were lots of twists and turns in the record-breaking first season’s final episode, but will the show have enough momentum to last the long haul?

Brian Moylan

19, Mar, 2015 @3:56 PM

Article image
Oscars TV ratings hit 10-year high of 43m viewers
Academy Awards attract biggest audience for a US entertainment show since the Friends finale in 2004. By John Plunkett

John Plunkett

04, Mar, 2014 @11:02 AM

Article image
La La Land wins record seven Golden Globes as Moonlight takes best drama
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone win acting honours and Damien Chazelle earns best director but Meryl Streep steals show with searing critique of Donald Trump

Lanre Bakare in Los Angeles and Benjamin Lee in New York

09, Jan, 2017 @7:42 AM

Article image
Emmys 2016: Game of Thrones breaks Frasier's record and wins best drama again
The sixth season of the HBO series swept all before it at the 2016 awards, becoming the most garlanded show in Emmys history in the process

Lanre Bakare in Los Angeles

19, Sep, 2016 @11:29 AM