As film pundits on Thursday morning lamented Oscar nominations as a setback for diversity when no black actors, writers or directors made the cut, diversity scored a major victory in TV that morning when overnight ratings showed a very strong Week 2 performance for Fox drama Empire, co-written, directed and produced by a black filmmaker, Lee Daniels, and featuring a predominantly black cast.
This already has been the season, in which diversity has been a big winner on broadcast, with Empire and ABC drama How To Get Away With Murder starring Viola Davis tied as the biggest new series premieres in Live+same day (3.8 in 18-49) and ABC’s African American family comedy Black-ish ranking as the highest rated new comedy series.
Empire took that up a notch this week when its second episode logged a 4.0 in 18-49 (Live+ Same Day). It became the only new series to build in Week 2 (ABC’s Forever went up from its first to second episode in the same week). And Empire became the only drama series — new or returning — to score a demo rating with a 4 in front of it the last two seasons except for the heavily promoted series premiere of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.
There are no superheroes in Empire, and it did it in Week 2 when new series typically retreat. How did a black family soap open so big and able to go even bigger in the second week?
There were encouraging signs, with Empire tracking in line with HTGAWM. Still, the premiere exceded expectations.
There was a big-scale marketing campaign with all sorts of stints targeting both men and women — from sponsoring a PPV boxing fight, Pacquiao v. Algieri on Nov. 22, to Black Friday promotions — shopping bags, checkout screens at Target and Walmart — to Empire-themed jewelry and Adidas shoes. There were also promos during football coverage on Fox and trailers on Fox’s sister cable networks, in movie theaters and on flights as well as a lot of screenings around the country held to get the word out.
There was a wrinkle to the Empire marketing campaign as the series premiered the Monday after the New Year’s weekend, making for a steady rollout, followed by a holiday lull, followed by a wall-to-wall media blitz. Fox had to adjust its midseason schedule, with American Idol, used as a lead-in for Empire, premiering weeks earlier than usual. Early January start has worked well for everyone this year. There appeared to be hunger for original fare as we saw virtually all returning series in the first week after the New Year’s holiday return up from their last episodes before the break.
Fox TV Group COO Joe Earley called Empire‘s marketing a “very broad campaign with niche overlays.” In the final stage, women who like soaps were targeted with promos featuring fun, lighter music while younger viewers were aimed at with promos built on heavier hip-hop sound.
Of course, black viewers were courted (there were barbershop promotions among other stints). They turned out for the premiere at “very healthy” levels, as did Latinos, Earley said, adding that, despite its soapy nature, the show is pretty balanced female-male as the network’s campaign also played up the strong male characters, the murder and business espionage elements.
It always starts with a strong show — Fox also campaigned heavily the same time last year for midseason drama Rake, which misfired. Beyond that, Earley credits the cooperation between the different Fox divisions — this was the first major Fox series launch since the network and studio 20th Century Fox TV, which produces Empire, were put under the same roof. Also key for the success were the Fox affiliates, which heavily promoted Empire on their local telecasts, the creative auspices, the cast led by Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, with high-profile guest stars like Naomi Campbell, Coutrney Love and Mary J Blige pitching in.. Lee, co-writer/exec producer Danny Strong, executive producer Brian Grazer and music producer Timbaland all actively worked on promoting the show, including through screenings. Earley called co-star Henson “social media maven.” Even social media queen, HTGAWM and Scandal executive producer Shonda Rhimes, helped, tweeting messages of support for Empire.
Empire could become a poster child for the so-called stacking rights that allowed networks to stream all episodes of their the current seasons of their series, beyond the so-called “rolling five,” the most recent five episodes. This has become a big issue for serialized series. The CW president Mark Pedowitz last week shared his frustrations that the network cannot make all aired episodes of its critically praised but modestly rated serialized freshman Jane the Virgin available online so new viewers can discover the show and join, even after its star won a Golden Globe.
On Empire, Fox and 20th TV determined early on that as a serialized soap, the show will benefit from giving viewers an opportunity to catch up on older episodes, and the two sides negotiated an agreement on stacking rights, Earley said.
Fox was not done promoting the show after the premiere. While Earley attributes Week 2 success mainly to great word of mouth, there were contributing factors. The network upped its planned spending in media buys on cable, digital/mobile/social and radio.
Hours after the broadcast premiere, Empire was made available on Fox Now and VOD platforms It became the biggest Fox series premiere ever on Fox Now and received more Day 1 to Day 4 viewing on VOD than any other Fox program this season, earning over 2.2 million views when FOX Now and Hulu are factored in. (In L+3, the Empire premiere netted a healthy 5.3 rating in 18-49 vs. 5.8 for HTGAWM.) Fox extra sampling, the premiere episode was rebroadcast on Monday.
And Fox is not done. Following the big Week 2 number, the network again increased what it had budgeted to spend on media promotion for the show. A behind the scenes Empire special is slated for tonight.
The opportunity to watch Empire on demand and catch up with the storyline played an important role in Empire‘s success, Horizon Media’s Brad Adgate said. Also, “it has star power in the cast and I think we will be able to get notable guest stars. The music angle has also worked on Fox before with Idol and Glee, so it’s a combination of recent successes. Fox could really use a successful show in first quarter as Idol‘s audience wanes. In this day and age these types of shows when done right can do very well with audiences, hitting the zeitgeist.”