Well this is concerning — both for FOX and for myself as a fan of Empire.
Three weeks and two episodes ago, FOX’s flagship hit a series low of 8.15 million L+SD viewers — which translated to a season low 11.98 million L+7 viewers. Though it rebounded some in the next episode the following week, Empire hit another series low with 7.81 million L+SD viewers this week (if DVR lift holds at its season average of 43%, this will translate to 11.17 million L+7 viewers for another season low).
Though still averaging 9.06 million L+SD viewers for the first seven episodes of its third season, this is 30% below the first seven episodes of last season (keeping in mind that first seven includes a highly-anticipated and highly-rated premiere).
The declines in the first half of last season could more easily be explained away by the fact that the show was airing in the fall for the first time amidst different competition than when it debuted in January of 2015 — and running uninterrupted through the middle of March.
That first fall run aired largely interrupted save for one week due to the World Series — which only went five games. This year, the World Series went seven games and the third Presidential Debate aired on a Wednesday — both of which preempted Empire for three weeks. Last year, the show aired an original episode the night before Thanksgiving for a season low — but this year took took that night off. However, that may have been a mistake this time around since the show clearly needs to rebuild some ratings momentum.
Right now, the show’s saving grace is in DVR lift. But even at a respectable 43%, it’s only 6% above that of last season and not enough to make up such an L+SD ratings shortfall. But as was the case last year, we should see a ratings boost — however slight — going into the fall finale before it takes another hiatus until March.
But in order to better protect its flagship show and ensure a few more seasons without a complete ratings freefall, perhaps FOX should hold back Empire for midseason with 15 episodes (instead of 18) running uninterrupted (instead of at the mercy of the World Series).
After all, it worked for American Idol and later seasons of 24.