Fox Renews Empire and Prepares for Life After American Idol

Plus, a slew of renewals and reboots in 2016

It has broadcast's biggest new show in a decade in Empire, but Fox is "still in rebuilding mode," according to Fox Television Group co-chairman and co-CEO Gary Newman. Its biggest challenges are still to come, as the network gets ready for life without American Idol, which goes off the air this spring after 15 seasons.

Speaking at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour, Newman and his co-chairman and co-CEO Dana Walden laid out Fox's post-American Idol plans.

Empire is renewed

In a no-brainer move, Fox renewed Empire for a third season. The show averages a 7.4 rating in adults 18-49 in live-plus-seven, and 22 million total viewers across all platforms. "Empire's nonlinear audience alone surpasses the prime-time average viewership of every cable network, including ESPN," said Walden.

While critics have felt that Empire has been off its game in Season 2, "if that show is off creatively, we would like all of our shows to be off creatively," said Newman. "I think the show creatively is in a great spot." Empire returns March 30 for the second half of Season 2.

Newman said Fox had two priorities last fall: "Maintaining Empire's dominance as the No. 1 show in broadcast, and launching and supporting new shows that we can build into long-term assets, like Grandfathered, The Grinder, Scream Queens and Rosewood." The network had "its most-watched fall in four years," and the "second most-watched fall in 14 years," said Newman.

As Fox approaches midseason, the network is "narrowing [its] focus to more strategic opportunities," including American Idol's final season, the return of The X-Files and Grease Live.

Scream Queens gives thanks to VOD and streaming

Fox has also renewed Scream Queens for a second season, explaining that the show is a testament to how audiences—especially millennials—watch television on multiple platforms. "It didn't break any records in its same-day performance, but its young and upscale audience is watching the series on its own terms," said Newman. Across all platforms, the show's average viewership grew by 167 percent. Season 2 will be set in a hospital and likely involve some of Season 1's characters.

When looking at Screen Queen's viewership over 30 days, only 30 percent of the audience watches live, with 26 percent viewing on DVR and 44 percent on VOD platforms, including VOD and streaming on Fox Now and Hulu.

"Between international sales and SVOD, it's a really solid asset for our studio," said Newman. "The streaming alone for Scream Queens, more than 2 million people per episode, would make it the No. 2 comedy on cable, behind only South Park." 

While "a substantial amount" of Fox's advertising was sold on C7 this year, which allows it to monetize some of that delayed viewing, Newman said the network is looking for other opportunities to partner with advertisers. "We're trying to find new ways to associate the brands with our shows. We're always careful about that because you don't want to overcommercialize the content. I don't think the audience wants that, but selectively, when the opportunity arises, we're going to do that."

However, "monetizing the non-Nielsen-rated viewing remains a challenge," said Newman, although Fox does have advertising on Hulu, Fox Now and VOD outside of the traditional three-day and seven-day windows. "More and more, we're monetizing that nonlinear viewing, and I think that's a trend that … advertisers recognize has to be part of the future of broadcast television."

The chiefs defended their decision to move away from releasing live-plus-same-day ratings last fall, with Newman calling them "nearly irrelevant." Added Walden: "We felt that it wasn't a relevant conversation to talk about the overnights," as Fox no longer discusses overnight ratings with producers.

A plethora of original and rebooted shows

But renewals won't be enough to fill the giant hole Idol leaves in the schedule. The network intends to order more shows than usual to fill the gap, said Walden, adding that development spending is up 30 percent. Among the contenders: a new music-based pilot from Empire creator Lee Daniels, an unscripted dating series from TV producer Mark Burnett and 24: Legacy, a new pilot from 24's creative team that won't involve Kiefer Sutherland or any other characters from the original 24.

Instead, the new show will feature all new characters, including a Jack Bauer-like lead who is called Eric Carter and will likely be African American or Latino. "There's a time jump. It's a new CTU, a new cast of characters," said Walden. "It's a very contemporary-feeling story about the potential to activate sleeper cells in the United States and radicalizing Americans."

Also in the pipeline: a limited series revival of Prison Break, which ran on Fox from 2005 to 2009 and has been officially ordered. Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell will return as brothers Michael Scofield and Lincoln Burrows (the duo also co-star on the upcoming CW series, DC's Legends of Tomorrow).

While a large portion of Fox's schedule and upcoming slate is based on pre-existing intellectual property, the chiefs said they're open to exploring new concepts as well. For new material, Walden wants to know, "Does it feel unique, distinct? Are there great characters at the center? Does it feel like a concept that lends itself to 100 or more episodes?"