Lessons To Take Away From Success Of 'Empire'

The success of Fox's new drama, "Empire," has rightfully attracted much praise and headlines.  

Major hit status, of course, is relative these days. "Empire" achieves about a 4 Nielsen rating among adults 18-34, a 4.5 rating among adults 18-49, and a 5 rating among adults 25-54.  By comparison, CBS' hit, "The Big Bang Theory," gets about the same rating as Empire among adults 18-49.

My 15-year-old son never misses an episode. He actually didn't see the first four episodes, but caught up on Hulu. He just told me he was going to have to stay up late to watch the finale. I said he should just DVR it, and he looked at me like I had two heads.  Everyone in is school is going to be talking about it the next day, so he has to watch it live.

As the broadcast networks plan their schedules for next season, what lessons should they take away from this?  First let's get some historical perspective.

  • The blockbuster original "Cosby Show" led to numerous failed comedies with African-American casts.
  • The success of "Friends" did not mean that viewers wanted more shows about 20somethings or groups of friends. In fact, several that immediately followed were instant flops.
  • "The Simpsons" became a cultural icon -- and led to several failed prime-time animation series until "Family Guy" hit.
  • "Grey’s Anatomy," which came out of nowhere in midseason, did not mean people wanted more medical dramas. None materialized over the next few seasons.
  • The successes of "Modern Family" and "The Big Bang Theory" did not lead to other similar hits or a comedy renaissance.
  • 24 became a cultural touch-point, but a number of attempts to catch its lightning in another bottle failed miserably.
  • Cable hits, such as "The Shield," "Breaking Bad," "Sons of Anarchy" and "The Walking Dead," did not lead to similarly themed successes.



So, what are the lessons we should learn from the success of "Empire"?

First, here’s what it doesn’t tell us.  It does not mean that viewers are looking for shows with more diverse casts -- even though that may be true.  It does not mean that viewers want more shows about hip-hop or the music industry.  It does not mean viewers are looking for another "Empire."

It means exactly the same thing that all the other hit shows mentioned above meant.  Viewers are looking for well-written, innovative shows, with great casts that gel, and isn’t just a clone of something they’ve seen before.

As is usually the case, most hits come as a surprise -- unless it’s another "NCIS" or "CSI." The next "Empire" is right around the corner, but we won’t know it until after it debuts.  It’s one of the things that make this business at once so exhilarating and exasperating.

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