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At the start of the fall television season, the focus is typically on the cavalcade of new shows, how quickly most of them will fail, and which lucky few will grow into solid performers for their respective networks. But this fall, the lack of compelling freshmen made it much easier to turn attention to the buzziest sophomore show: Fox’s Empire. By the end of its first season last March, the hip-hop soap became the most popular scripted drama on all of television, on the back of an otherworldly streak of weekly ratings increases that the industry hadn’t seen in years. Fox, predictably hoping to keep the momentum going, brought Empire back in September to impressive but slightly slower numbers in Nielsen’s 18-49 demographic (6.9 in March vs. 6.7 in September) and total viewers (17.62 million vs. 16.12 million). Since the season two premiere, Empire’s ratings have dipped further, including a season-low 4.2/11.15 million viewers for this Wednesday’s episode. So the questions must be asked: Why did this happen and is there legitimate cause for concern?
There are three explanations for why this has happened. First, one might suggest that the show’s kitchen sink approach to storytelling and characterization—with entire arcs beginning and ending in the span of a couple of weeks and characters swapping allegiances in even shorter time—has grown tiresome for some viewers, particularly those who got swept up in the phenomenon of it all last spring. Shows with similar disregard for traditional broadcast pacing and plotting such as The O.C. and Glee (both Fox shows, by the way) also burned very bright before crashing down to Earth once stories turned repetitive, hyperbolic, or melodramatic.
While Empire is relatively young in its lifecycle compared to when viewers turned on The O.C. and Glee, it’s arguably an even more extreme case of too much too soon. In less than 20 episodes, Lucious has escaped certain death, survived a dangerous prison stint, and defeated all those who have challenged his business acumen. The show has tackled everything from #BlackLivesMatter to implied cannibalism—in one episode—while still leaning so heavily on the familial subterfuge and backstabbing between the Lyons that it’s nearly impossible to sketch a coherent arc or relationship for anyone. Viewers could simply be tired of this.
Second, we could point to network malpractice. Fox did a masterful job of developing and promoting Empire throughout last season before its January premiere, but the show’s significant success is essentially the only success the network has experienced recently. The once-dominant American Idol eroded enough that Fox is trotting it out just one more time this January. The aforementioned investment in Glee offered little return after the untimely death of Cory Monteith and once Ryan Murphy got bored with it. The early success for Gotham and Sleepy Hollow disappeared very quickly. I could go on and on, but the point is this: Fox desperately needed as much Empire as possible, and as soon as possible, leading to the early premiere in September instead of another January start date.
On one hand, the wait between late March 2015 and early January 2016 would have been brutal. With ten months away, the network would have risked fringe viewers forgetting that they cared about Cookie or talking about Hakeem’s latest outburst at work every Thursday. On the other hand, today’s networks have to be smarter about playing the long game with their properties, especially ones they own. Fox’s goal shouldn’t be to get the highest ratings this week or this fall; it should be to extend a good version of Empire for the longest possible amount of time to score the best syndication, streaming, and ancillary market money it can. When you’re already working with a show that’s built to combust, creating conditions that ensure that combustion happens sooner is more than a little misguided.
To make matters worse Empire’s early fall return was bifurcated by Fox’s annual scheduling problem, the World Series. The baseball title bout has short-circuited the early runs of many great shows, including New Girl, which was a legitimate hit in its first few weeks, immediately came back lower after baseball, and never totally recovered. Though Empire only missed one week where it could have aired a new episode (Oct. 30), that short break came right at the time when it seemed to have stopped the ratings hemorrhaging. The Oct. 23 episode is the only one of the fall to increase in ratings from the previous week, and yet, unsurprisingly, when Empire returned on Nov. 4, it dipped from a 4.8 in the 18-49 to a 4.6.
This week Fox announced its midseason schedule, with another extended break for Empire baked in (it won’t return until March 2016 after the fall run concludes). So if you’re keeping track, that means Fox traded one 10-month break for two shorter ones, creating a disjointed run of episodes that stretch out from September to May, instead of one consistent flow of hours in the spring. This is not what I meant when I suggested earlier that Fox do its best to extend Empire’s lifespan. Fox already masterfully marketed the show before its premiere. Why couldn’t it, armed with a cast full of amazing performers, have fostered buzz and anticipation through some live concert specials (a la Nashville) or one-off events that kept Empire in the minds of viewers?
After looking inward at Empire’s hectic pacing and toward Fox’s questionable scheduling tactics, it’s only fair to zoom outward to the larger network landscape, which brings us to the third reason why live ratings might be sagging: ratings are pretty much bad everywhere. Empire scored groundbreaking numbers last spring, but it was part of a decently successful class of new shows that also included How to Get Away With Murder, Scorpion, black-ish, NCIS: New Orleans, and Gotham. All of those shows have seen fairly steep declines from their initial runs in 2014-15. Murder was the fall version of Empire and just 12 months later, it’s down nearly three million viewers and more than a full point in the 18-49 demographic—simply put, it’s doing much worse than Empire.
And everything else in the realm of scripted programming is doing much worse than Empire. That’s why, while Fox should be concerned at the decline in ratings, it shouldn’t be in full-on crisis mode. Last week, Empire was still the highest rated scripted series in the 18-49 demo, and by a comfortable margin over its nearest competitor, The Big Bang Theory (4.6 vs. 3.7). In fact, Empire’s 18-49 figure was double the 2.3 rating for Grey’s Anatomy, the next closest scripted show after Big Bang. The two biggest hits of the new crop of shows, Blindspot and Supergirl, combined for a 18-49 rating (4.4) that was still smaller than what Empire drew on its own.
The news is even better, I guess, if you look around the wasteland that is the rest of Fox’s schedule. While Empire notched a 4.6 last week, no other Fox scripted show topped a 2.0, and only Gotham (1.6), The Simpsons (1.5), and Rosewood (1.5) came close. Fox’s four new shows—Minority Report, Scream Queens, Grandfathered, and The Grinder—combined for a 3.4 and fewer total viewers during the same period. By the way, it’s not crazy to assume that all of those shows save Minority Report will be back next fall. That’s how bad it is on Fox, and really, throughout the entire broadcast landscape. Empire is the shimmering oasis in an endless, scorching desert of nothingness, and that’s why Fox and everyone in network TV was rooting for it to continue to succeed.
And it is. Even setting aside Empire’s relative domination of the rest of broadcast TV, the show is still doing very well, especially once Live+3 and Live+7 ratings are factored into the mix. According to data released by TV By The Numbers, Empire, on average, grew from a 5.4 in the 18-49 demo to a 7.3 between live-same day viewing and three day viewing in its first five episodes. That 1.9 increase is larger than the live viewership of most other shows on TV. Similarly, that pre-World Series episode I mentioned earlier, the one that saw the season’s only ratings uptick? It jumped from a 4.8 all the way to a 7.2 with seven days of viewership data considered by Nielsen. Those Live+7 numbers can’t quite match the unbelievable data points from last spring—the +7 ratings for the Season 1 finale were a colossal 9.3 in the 18-49—but they’re still above live viewership for last season. And again, while Empire is already the most-watched scripted show, the big DVR gains for Big Bang, Modern Family, Blindspot, and more still don’t come anywhere near the kind of viewership Empire gets every week.
Empire will likely never again reach the heights of March 2015, but that’s okay. It’s unlikely that any show, ever again, will be able to gain viewers every week for six weeks, while also becoming the highest rated scripted show on TV. Its current dip, then, must be judged relative to the rest of television, not to its past performance. Until the show dips below a 2.0, there’s no need to be too worried that the Lyons are close to extinction.