Taranji Henson, Fox co-CEOs Gary Newman and Dana Walden talk to TV critics at press tour Saturday.
After only two episodes in, the breakout hit has been picked up for a second season, the network announced at the TV critics’ press tour Saturday. The move is partly surprising (in that it’s very unusual for a broadcaster to renew a series so fast, though it occasionally happens on cable) and yet not given the show’s stunning ratings this week. Empire‘s premiere episode tied How to Get Away with Murder as the season’s highest-rated series debut among adults 18-49. The second episode then stunned the industry by rising in the ratings — which is a very rare occurrence, especially after a strong debut (Empire is the only drama to rise in Week 2 this season).
Filmed in Chicago but set in New York, the hip-hop-focused family drama stars Chicago-born Howard (“The Butler”) and Taraji P. Henson (“Person of Interest”). It debuted to impressive numbers, beating its lead-in “American Idol” in advertiser-coveted young adults. The January premiere tied Viola Davis’ “How To Get Away with Murder” as the biggest new series bow of the 2014-15 season, netting a 3.8 rating among 18-to-49-year-olds. An average of 9.9 million viewers watched overall.
The second episode fared even better, notching a 4.0 rating. Empire has averaged a 5.3 in the demo and 11.7 million viewers. So last week the question going into week wasn’t which direction Empire’sratings would go, but what percentage the drama would decline. With all the inherent headwind, a mere 12 percent drop would have been considered good.
Somost would think that this means Empire is a hit, right? Not necessarily so. Networks will often declare a show a hit very quickly, in part to wag the dog. It’s part of the marketing strategy but the reality is, two episodes do not make a “hit” show. But Empire‘s performance so far is exactly what the first two weeks of a hit show looks like. Then there’s the star Terrence Howard’s troubled past which became a topic of conversation.
“Being able to bring that many people to the opening of the show was so exciting, and that it grew in the second week was, honestly, beyond our expectation,” said Fox co-chair and co-CEO Dana Walden, who, along with Gary Newman, took over the top entertainment post at the fourth-place network last year.
Walden and Newman are new to the job, but not new to the business. They helped chart the series with Lee Daniels and Danny Strong (“The Butler”) at 20th Century Fox Television when both worked on the studio-side of things.
Though the announcement was celebratory somebody had to ask the question in light of the recent media lynching of Bill Cosby, so why not throw another brother in the mix? The mood shifted when a reporter asked about the casting of Howard, who plays thug-turned-music mogul Lucious Lyon. He’s a character prone to violence — something Howard has been accused of in real life. Howard also has a role in Fox’s upcoming M. Night Shyamalan drama “Wayward Pines,” debuting this summer.
Reporter: He’s had contentious relationships with ex’es. He has had two restraining orders. He’s been accused of domestic violence and violence toward women that he didn’t even know. When you’re doing casting, does this come up as part of the conversation?
Walden: I want to start by saying that we’ve been working with Terrence now for just about a year, and it’s been a fantastic experience. He’s a leader among that cast. He’s so professional. He’s been so hardworking and he’s just been a great partner to us. So our experience with Terrence has been excellent. We cast Terrence because our executive producers, Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, and Brian Grazer, felt that he was the best actor for that particular role. Our experience with him at that point was being fans of the films he’s done in the past and it seemed like a little bit of a no-brainer. So with Terrence, we really didn’t become aware of any of the situation you’re talking about until December. It wasn’t part of the conversation when we cast him.
Reporter: You weren’t aware, as in you don’t do even minimal Google checks on people or, I mean, it’s been reported pretty widely for much longer than since December.
Walden: I can only tell you that was when we were made aware of it. And the allegations at this point, we do know about them, but we’ve also had now a good long chunk of time. Terrence was also on “Wayward Pines.” The network executives who interacted with him had nothing but a great experience. So, no, it just didn’t come into the conversation.
The crazy thing about all this is that journalists have to ask questions. But is it our job to litigate on behalf of the public who has an obligatory responsibility to participate in the judiciary system as jurors. Most find a way to avoid doing jury duty. But trying people outside a courtroom in the public court of law, in the media, or in park hanging a man from a tree is not where we seek justice. All I’m saying is if Howard hasn’t been brought up on any charges then let it be. Should the time come that his behavior becomes a problem then the network will deal with it. But to judge people based on their past is not very optimistic about our justice system. Change is possible. As Walden stated . . .”he’s just been a great partner to us. So our experience with him has been excellent.” Reality Check — ‘Reporter, sometimes it’s the company we keep that provokes volatile circumstances.’ Howard’s sensitivity and passion is what feeds his talent as a good actor. Judging is stifling and certainly not the end all. Where would Robert Downey Jr. be today if everyone gave up on him and no one stood up on his behalf? Thumbs up on this one to Fox, which has tended to lean to the right.
“Empire’s” first season consists of a dozen episodes. The show airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on WFLD-Channel 32.