Fox Looks to Make Empire an Enduring Success, Not Just a Short-Term Hit

There's a danger in shows burning too hot and fast

Empire might not be as white-hot as it was in Season 1, but the show remains one of TV's biggest hits, and its ratings among 18- to 49-year-olds are twice as high as any other current Fox series, except for The X-Files. However, the network has already ruled out Empire as the show that will follow the Super Bowl next February.

"We're trying to think about what's in the best interest of the show," said Dana Walden, co-chairman and co-CEO of Fox Television Group, at an Empire panel today during the 2016 NAB Show in Las Vegas. Because Empire takes a lengthy midseason hiatus, it would disrupt the flow to bring it back for a single episode, she explained.

But while Empire won't benefit from the Big Game's audience (Fox plans to announce its pick for that honor during next month's upfront), the network is working to sustain the show's success for several years to come.

"Empire is what we hold out to people [as] what the Fox brand stands for. When we premiered, people were wondering if you could have that kind of success on broadcast," said Walden. "If you give us that show, we'll make it an event for our audience."

Now Fox's challenge is to make sure the series doesn't burn too hot and fast, like its previous hit shows Glee and Ally McBeal. "It's really in the storytelling. The characters are rich. The world is rich," said Gary Newman, co-chairman and co-CEO of Fox Television Group. "We're not looking to have the greatest two-year run; we're looking to sustain."

But that doesn't mean producers are shy about killing off characters who have outlived their usefulness. "When they gotta go, they gotta go," said Walden.

Bryshere "Yazz" Gray, who plays Hakeem Lyon, hopes he escapes the Grim Reaper for several years. "It's one of the best jobs in the world! This is a dream come true," said Gray. "They found me out of nowhere. I was in Philadelphia performing in a basement studio."

The future of Empire

Walden joked about potential Empire knockoffs coming to Fox's schedule—"How about Gympire?"—but the network is considering another music-based pilot from Empire's co-creator Lee Daniels, called Star, about an all-female singing group from Atlanta. "Empire talks about people at the top of the business. Star is all about the journey of what you would sacrifice for fame," said Newman.

And while Star isn't an Empire spinoff, despite Daniels' involvement, the characters could still crossover. "It wouldn't be crazy to suggest that Yazz travels to Atlanta and meets the girls" from Star,  said Walden.

Empire still has five episodes left in Season 2, but the writing staff is already looking ahead to next season; on May 2, it starts work on Season 3. "Eighteen episodes of Empire is like 22 episodes of any other show," said Ilene Chaiken, Empire's showrunner. "When you see our finale, you'll see a lot about how Season 3 is going to go."

Empire was co-created by Daniels and Danny Strong, but Chaiken handles showrunning duties. "I love the show more than life itself," said Chaiken, who is in touch with Daniels "constantly" to make sure the show stays true to his vision.

A look at pilot season

In other Fox news, Walden and Newman said they are just starting to see complete pilots as they begin making decisions about which shows to order for next season. Walden said the reboot of 24, called 24: Legacy and featuring all new characters, is "fantastic," and noted the show retains the same creative team from the original series, including Kiefer Sutherland, who starred as Jack Bauer and now serves as an executive producer.

Also in contention are pilots based on the films The Exorcist and Lethal Weapon, "recognizable IP," which Walden noted "would not be so much of a burden to marketing" if they are picked up to series. 

With 12 current shows already ordered for next season, "we're going to have the most stable schedule we've had in years," said Walden.

Another challenge Walden and Newman are facing next season is deciding whether or not to delay their midseason shows—which typically debut in January—until after the Super Bowl airs in February. "It's like a jigsaw puzzle," said Newman. "We're trying to figure out, how do you take advantage of that incredible circulation you get?"

@ChrisAriens Chris Ariens is the managing editor and director of video at Adweek.
@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.