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Is "Empire" On The Way Down?

At the start of the fall television season, the focus is typically on the cavalcade of new shows, how quickly most of them will fail, and which lucky few will grow into solid performers for their respective networks. But this fall, the lack of compelling freshmen made it much easier to turn attention to the buzziest sophomore show: Fox’s Empire. By the end of its first season last March, the hip-hop soap became the most popular scripted drama on all of television, on the back of an otherworldly streak of weekly ratings increases that the industry hadn’t seen in years. Fox, predictably hoping to keep the momentum going, brought Empire back in September to impressive but slightly slower numbers in Nielsen’s 18-49 demographic (6.9 in March vs. 6.7 in September) and total viewers (17.62 million vs. 16.12 million). Since the season two premiere, Empire’s ratings have dipped further, including a season-low 4.2/11.15 million viewers for this Wednesday’s episode. So the questions must be asked: Why did this happen and is there legitimate cause for concern?

There are three explanations for why this has happened. First, one might suggest that the show’s kitchen sink approach to storytelling and characterization—with entire arcs beginning and ending in the span of a couple of weeks and characters swapping allegiances in even shorter time—has grown tiresome for some viewers, particularly those who got swept up in the phenomenon of it all last spring. Shows with similar disregard for traditional broadcast pacing and plotting such as The O.C. and Glee (both Fox shows, by the way) also burned very bright before crashing down to Earth once stories turned repetitive, hyperbolic, or melodramatic.

While Empire is relatively young in its lifecycle compared to when viewers turned on The O.C. and Glee, it’s arguably an even more extreme case of too much too soon. In less than 20 episodes, Lucious has escaped certain death, survived a dangerous prison stint, and defeated all those who have challenged his business acumen. The show has tackled everything from #BlackLivesMatter to implied cannibalism—in one episode—while still leaning so heavily on the familial subterfuge and backstabbing between the Lyons that it’s nearly impossible to sketch a coherent arc or relationship for anyone. Viewers could simply be tired of this.

Second, we could point to network malpractice. Fox did a masterful job of developing and promoting Empire throughout last season before its January premiere, but the show’s significant success is essentially the only success the network has experienced recently. The once-dominant American Idol eroded enough that Fox is trotting it out just one more time this January. The aforementioned investment in Glee offered little return after the untimely death of Cory Monteith and once Ryan Murphy got bored with it. The early success for Gotham and Sleepy Hollow disappeared very quickly. I could go on and on, but the point is this: Fox desperately needed as much Empire as possible, and as soon as possible, leading to the early premiere in September instead of another January start date.

On one hand, the wait between late March 2015 and early January 2016 would have been brutal. With ten months away, the network would have risked fringe viewers forgetting that they cared about Cookie or talking about Hakeem’s latest outburst at work every Thursday. On the other hand, today’s networks have to be smarter about playing the long game with their properties, especially ones they own. Fox’s goal shouldn’t be to get the highest ratings this week or this fall; it should be to extend a good version of Empire for the longest possible amount of time to score the best syndication, streaming, and ancillary market money it can. When you’re already working with a show that’s built to combust, creating conditions that ensure that combustion happens sooner is more than a little misguided.

To make matters worse Empire’s early fall return was bifurcated by Fox’s annual scheduling problem, the World Series. The baseball title bout has short-circuited the early runs of many great shows, including New Girl, which was a legitimate hit in its first few weeks, immediately came back lower after baseball, and never totally recovered. Though Empire only missed one week where it could have aired a new episode (Oct. 30), that short break came right at the time when it seemed to have stopped the ratings hemorrhaging. The Oct. 23 episode is the only one of the fall to increase in ratings from the previous week, and yet, unsurprisingly, when Empire returned on Nov. 4, it dipped from a 4.8 in the 18-49 to a 4.6.

Full article on Complex