One Tough Cookie: 'Empire' Finale Smashes Ratings Records

Fox's Rookie Phenom Tops Broadcast Rivals, Madonna

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'Empire.'
'Empire.' Credit: Fox Broadcasting

In one fell swoop, Fox's sudsy musical drama "Empire" on Wednesday not only turned the broadcast TV universe on its ear, but it also knocked a pop diva out of the spotlight.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings, the season finale of "Empire" didn't raise the roof so much as tear it off completely. The last hour of the two-part block averaged 17.6 million viewers and a 6.9 in the 18-to-49 demographic, making it the highest-rated episode of a broadcast drama to air in the last seven seasons.

To contextualize the demo, as each ratings point is equal to 1% of the total population of 18-to-49-year-olds who own TVs, the "Empire" finale drew 8.76 million members of the advertiser-coveted sub-phylum.

The first of the two distinct episodes averaged 15.8 million viewers and a 6.1 in the demo.

"Empire" kept its unprecedented streak of week-to-week growth alive, building on its total viewership base in each of the 11 episodes following its Jan. 7 series premiere. This feat hasn't been accomplished in the modern TV era, going back to when Nielsen introduced its "people meters" technology in 1991.

While most network shows now drop between 12% and 15% between the premiere and the second episode, and rarely come anywhere near their opening deliveries, "Empire" boasted steroidal growth throughout its freshman run. When compared to its premiere ratings (9.9 million viewers and a 3.8 in the demo), the finale soared by a factor of 78% and 82%, respectively.

All told, Season 1 of "Empire" averaged 13 million viewers and a 5.1 in the demo. By way of comparison, the No. 2 broadcast drama, ABC's "Scandal," is averaging a 3.2 rating. The highest-rated freshman series, ABC's "How to Get Away with Murder," averaged a 3.0 in its inaugural run.

The last time a broadcast drama put up a bigger demo was during the 2008-09 season, when ABC's "Desperate Housewives" averaged a 5.2 rating.

Many different factors contributed to the success of "Empire" -- the music, the gonzo storylines, the breakout character that is Taraji Henson's Cookie -- but its continual growth can be credited to a loyal, ever-expanding fan base and huge VOD deliveries. Per Nielsen, last week's episode drew in nearly three-quarters of all African-American women in the demo who were watching TV at the time, an astonishing achievement in an age of fragmentation.

And newcomers to the "Empire" phenomenon clearly caught up at their leisure, as the show is the biggest draw on cable VOD packages. (As a bonus to Fox and its advertisers, viewers who watch VOD aren't afforded the luxury of skipping the ads.)

The morning before "Empire" closed out its landmark first season, the official soundtrack debuted in the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart, elbowing aside Madonna's new "Rebel Heart" LP. This marked the first time since 1998 that a Madonna release failed to debut in the top spot.

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