How FOX Can Save the “Empire”

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Yesterday at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, FOX announced the fourth season renewal of its flagship series Empire.

There has been some concern on our end about the show’s ratings decline this season — which includes a series low of 6.98 million L+SD viewers for its 12/7/16 episode that was unimaginable a year ago when its low was 9.21 million L+SD viewers. But season-to-date, the show is averaging 8.67 million L+SD viewers with a 44% average L+7 DVR lift for a cumulative viewership of 12.5 million viewers.

Though 24% below last season’s average L+SD viewership and 21% below last season’s average L+7 viewership, these are still respectable numbers when compared to other shows. But when one breaks out in such an unexpected fashion so rare for the current TV climate, builds upon its lead-in (however diluted) and increases its ratings with every episode of its first season as Empire did, then its descent from the ratings stratosphere throughout its second season — and even more so in its third season — is that much more noticeable.

Regardless, Empire is still FOX’s #1 show by almost two million viewers in live viewership and almost three million viewers in L+7 viewership. But with a 33% decrease in live viewership and a 28% decrease in L+7 viewership since that first season, steps need to be made on the part of the network and the part of the show itself to not only stem these declines but also to help recoup some of those ratings losses.

First off, FOX should hold the show back until midseason for the 2017-2018 broadcast year. Empire premiered in January of 2015 with a largely uninterrupted run of 12 episodes ending in March. Its first fall run in late 2015 was affected by baseball, specials and the holidays but averaged 12.28 million L+SD viewers. Its second fall run in late 2016 was affected by a highly-rated World Series that went a full seven games, a contentious Presidential election, preemptions, specials and the holidays but only averaged 8.68 million L+SD viewers — a 29% fall-to-fall decline. So best practice might be to avoid the traffic on Sunset and Santa Monica by just taking Fountain.

Granted, this could be very detrimental to FOX’s fall ratings unless the World Series brings them a great matchup with lots of viewer interest. But they’ve had hit-or-miss fall seasons for as long as they’ve aired postseason baseball — so they’ll be able to muddle through. They no longer have American Idol, which they’ve always held back for midseason, to save their entire season. But now they can use Empire to at least stabilize it.

This approach also worked well for FOX’s own 24 during its original 2001-2010 series run. FOX launched the show’s fourth season in January for a largely uninterrupted run through May. The show’s ratings improved by 16% over its third season and they held the show for midseason until the end of its run.

The same could happen for Empire. While no one should expect first season numbers for a show going into its fourth, that 16% could compensate for a lot of this season’s loss (should the decline abate during the spring run) and get the show back to at least second season levels.

Of course, that’s asking a lot of a scheduling shift — which brings me back to the show itself. Empire burned through a lot of plot in its first season — which is understandable given that they didn’t know if there would be a second. In the first half of that second season, they overdid it with guest stars — which they rectified in the second half by making it more about the family.

But so far this season, it seems as if they no longer really know what to do with the family. And the resolution of last season’s cliffhanger may not have been the best creative choice at this point in time when there was so much more that could have been done with that character and her situation.

So this added time before the suggested launch of their fourth season should be used to regroup creatively and plot out a really solid fourth season that brings back the spark of the first and the excitement of the early second.

Then we can finally get Taraji P. Henson that well-deserved Emmy as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

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