'Empire' Strikes Back for Fox, Making Broadcast History

On Pace to Unseat 'Big Bang Theory' as Broadcast's Top-Rated Scripted Series

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Taraji Henson as Cookie Lyon and Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon on 'Empire.'
Taraji Henson as Cookie Lyon and Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon on 'Empire.' Credit: Fox

Fox's musical drama "Empire" is a phenomenon, and as its ratings momentum continues to confound historical precedents, it has also re-written the network's internal narrative.

According to Nielsen fast national data, "Empire" on Wednesday night delivered a staggering 13.8 million viewers and a 5.3 adults 18-49 rating, where each ratings point represents 1% of the 127 million Americans in the age bracket. As such, "Empire" last night reached some 6.72 million adults 18 to 49. It marked the show's seventh consecutive week of growth among the advertiser-targeted demographic.

Bear in mind that the Feb. 18 episode was revised upward one-tenth of a ratings point, to a 5.2, upon application of live-same-day data, so there's a chance that last night's already gaudy preliminary number could get pushed up to a 5.4 in the final analysis. To put that number into context, the last time a broadcast drama did better than a 5.3 in the demo was May 2010, when ABC aired the series finale of "Lost."

"Empire" premiered on Jan. 7 to a stellar 9.9 million viewers and a 3.8 in the so-called dollar demo, but that was just a taste of what was to come. While most new series drop anywhere between 15% and 20% in their second week, "Empire" grew, posting 10.3 million viewers and a 4.0 on Jan. 14. In every subsequent week, the viewer count has continued to expand, a feat that hasn't played out on the Big Four since Nielsen introduced its People Meters in 1991.

Not only is "Empire" washing the bad taste out of Fox's 2014-15 broadcast season -- four of its seven new series have already been scrubbed from the schedule -- but it's completely upending network TV's rules of engagement. In a season where the 30 extant new broadcast series are averaging a piddling 1.5 in the demo, "Empire's" average 4.6 rating is major.

While "Empire" is clearly king, queen and jack of the broadcast airwaves (it's on pace to unseat CBS's "The Big Bang Theory" as the top-rated scripted broadcast series), it still has a ways to go before it can claim dominance over the entire TV landscape. With a season average of a 7.4 in the 18-to-49 demo, AMC's "The Walking Dead" is all but untouchable.

Too few
If there's any downside to the "Empire" saga, it's that Fox only ordered 12 episodes. That leaves just four more installments before Cookie and co. sign off until next fall, and the two final episodes will air back-to-back on March 18.

Fox said the double-barreled finale was planned from the very beginning, as "Empire" makes room for a two-hour "American Idol." Beginning March 26, the network is moving the results show to Wednesday night and shifting its veteran procedural "Bones" to the Thursday 8 p.m. slot, where it will provide a lead-in for the freshman drama "Backstrom."

"Empire" may not save Fox from the ignominy of finishing last among the Big Four in the demo -- averaging a 2.1 rating through the first 22 weeks of the season, it currently trails NBC (2.7), CBS (2.4) and ABC (2.2) -- but it does provide an appreciable boost as the network heads into upfront season, where programmers sell the bulk of their upcoming programming.

For one thing, the show will command a much higher per-spot cost in the 2015-16 bazaar (last summer, media buyers said a 30-second spot in "Empire" cost no more than $140,000 a pop, although naturally clients paid much higher rates in scatter); for another thing, the battery of "Idol" and "Empire" plus the returning freshman drama "Gotham" provide a few tent poles around which to build a more robust schedule.

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