USA TODAY US Edition
Heat from Fox’s ‘Empire’ may be ebbing
Fans may be taking a bite out of Cookie.
Fox’s Empire (tonight, 9 p.m. ET/PT), red-hot in its first season, has begun to show early signs of cooling. Though the show remains network TV’s top series among young adults by a mile, its audience has declined each week this fall, rather than build — as it did, impressively — last spring. Same-day viewership has dropped by more than 5 million since March’s big finale, marking the show’s smallest audience since Feb. 11.
But Empire is still averaging 16.7 million viewers, up 32% from its average for last season’s first four episodes, and has nearly double the young-adult crowd of ABC’s Scandal and NBC’s
Blindspot, the biggest new hit of the fall.
“Besides football and The
Walking Dead, nothing ’s pulling in these kinds of numbers; it’s still a monster hit,” says Billie Gold of ad firm Amplifi. “But the week-to-week drop in ratings has to be a little unsettling.”
On social media, fans have begun griping about ever-more-outrageous storylines (“cartoon garbage,” sniffed one Twitter user), such as frantic efforts in last week’s episode to find and dig up the body of Vernon, who was accidentally killed in last season’s finale, and park his decomposed corpse in a car to intimidate an attack-dog prosecutor.
There’s pushback on the show’s heavy dose of celebrity cameos, such as Chris Rock and Ludacris. “Some of them are laughable, and they clearly don’t fit into the story,” Gold says.
And Empire has become less dominant on Twitter: The Oct. 7 episode sparked 456,000 tweets, according to Nielsen, down from the 700,000 range in early March and a huge 2.4 million for the March 18 season finale.
But is this all inevitable backlash of network TV’s biggest hit in a decade?
Matt Phillips of the Keller Fay Group, which measures fan “sentiment” about primetime TV shows, says reaction to Empire is still “overwhelmingly positive” and shows “no sign of decline from last season.”
Vanity Fair, summing up last week’s episode, said, “Everything was insane, which is to say that everything was perfect.” And USA TODAY’s Robert Bianco last month praised the show’s “energetic charms” but warned viewers, “Don’t look for logic; it’s not
Empire’s strong point.” As Lyon scion Jamal sang in one of the show’s first musical hits, its stars make no apologies for the show’s plots.
“Yes, it’s over the top, and some of the stuff is outlandish ( but) we still will challenge you to think ... or we’re making you look at yourself, or just pissing you off,” says Taraji P. Henson, who plays Cookie.
Creator Lee Daniels has likened the series to 1980s drama
Dynasty, but the parade of celebrity cameos — championed by Fox — risks comparisons to another Aaron Spelling soap, The
“The minute you start worrying about guest stars, you’ve got your eye off the ball. The ball is the family, and Empire.”