'Empire' flops overseas as foreign viewers resist Hollywood's diversity push

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Before you go close icon

A version of this story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Driven by the ratings success of shows with mainly nonwhite casts -- Empire, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat -- along with political pressure to make shows better reflect their diverse audience, American TV outlets increasingly are greenlighting series that feature black, Asian and Latino leads. Fox's 24: Legacy, a reboot of the Kiefer Sutherland series, stars Corey Hawkins, famous as Dr. Dre from Straight Outta Compton. CBS has Rush Hour, based on the action movie franchise, starring Jon Foo and Justin Hires, and has cast Sarah Shahi, a former NFL cheerleader of Persian and Spanish ancestry, as Nancy Drew in its reboot of the lily-white mystery franchise.

"It's color-blind casting," says Sony Pictures TV casting director Dawn Steinberg. "There used to be a time when it had to be written that way to look for an actor with a specific ethnicity. Now it's just who is the best actor for the role."

But when trying to sell overseas, American shows are finding the color barrier is still there. Why? Insiders say it's because international audiences have yet to truly embrace diversity on the small screen. "These shows are a reflection of our society, but [they are] not a reflection of all societies," says Marion Edwards, president of international TV at Fox.

See photos from the first season of "Empire":

28 PHOTOS
FOX's Empire
See Gallery
'Empire' flops overseas as foreign viewers resist Hollywood's diversity push
EMPIRE: Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) shows up at Empire in the 'Outspoken King' episode of EMPIRE airing Monday, Jan. 14, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Jamal (Jussie Smollett, L) records at a 'ghetto' studio in the 'Dangerous Bonds' episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Lucious (Terrence Howard, R) protects Anika in the 'False Imposition' episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - JANUARY 06: Jussie Smollett arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of 'Empire' held at ArcLight Cinemas Cinerama Dome on January 6, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic)
EMPIRE: Michael (guest star Rafael de la Fuente, L), Jamal (Jussie Smollett, C) and Porsha (guest star Ta'Rhonda Jones, R) wait for Cookie to arrive in the 'Out Damned Spot' episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015 (9:01-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) holds a secret in the 'Out Damned Spot' episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015 (9:01-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) gives Hakeem some advice in the 'False Imposition' episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Gladys Knight performs as herself at Bunkie's funeral in the 'Devil Quotes Scripture' episode airing Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Anika (Grace Gealey, L) runs into Porsha (guest star Ta'Rhonda Jones, R) in the 'Out Damned Spot' episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015 (9:01-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Anika (Grace Gealey, L), Lucious (Terrence Howard, C) listen to Hakeem's (Bryshere Gray, R) new song in the 'Out Damned Spot' episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015 (9:01-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Lucious (Terrence Howard) delivers a eulogy for Bunkie in the 'Devil Quotes Scripture' episode airing Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Cookie (Taraji P. Henson, L) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett, R) pay their respects to Bunkie in the 'Devil Quotes Scripture' episode airing Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Hakeem (Bryshere Gray, L) and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson, R) chat in the 'Out Damned Spot' episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015 (9:01-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) is upset in the 'Dangerous Bonds' episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: In a Flashback episode, Lucious (Terrence Howard) rehearses at home in the 'False Imposition' episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Hakeem (Bryshere Gray, R) introduces his new girlfriend Tiana (guest star Serayah McNeill, L) in the 'Devil Quotes Scripture' episode airing Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) visits an old friend in the 'Devil Quotes Scripture' episode airing Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Andre (Trai Byers, L) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray, R) have a conversation in the 'Devil Quotes Scripture' episode airing Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Lucious (Terrence Howard) toasts his family in the 'Devil Quotes Scripture' episode airing Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. Pictured L-R: Jussie Smollett, Serayah McNeill, Taraji P. Henson, Bryshere Gray, Grace Gealey, Terrence Howard, Trai Byers and Kaitlin Doubleday. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Lucious (Terrence Howard, C) surprises Anika (Grace Gealey, R) with a performance from Anthony Hamilton (guest star) in the 'Dangerous Bonds' episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Anika (Grace Gealey) watches a performance in the 'Devil Quotes Scripture' episode airing Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Andre (Trai Byers, L) and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson, R) chat in the 'Dangerous Bonds' episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Anika (Grace Gealey, L) and Lucious (Terrence Howard, R) have a chat in the 'False Imposition' episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Lucious (Terrence Howard, R) talks to Hakeem (Bryshere Gray, L) in the 'False Imposition' episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Michael (guest star Rafael de la Fuente, L), Jamal (Jussie Smollett, C) and Porsha (guest star Ta'Rhonda Jones, R) wait for Cookie to arrive in the 'Out Damned Spot' episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015 (9:01-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
EMPIRE: Hakeem (Bryshere Gray, R) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett, L) perform in the 'Outspoken King' episode of EMPIRE airing Monday, Jan. 14, 2015 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)
Marisa Tomei arrives at the 30th Film Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, in Santa Monica, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

Read More: TV Pilot Season: 6 Casting Directors Talk Diversity Push and Stars They Couldn't Get

Take Empire. Fox's hip-hop drama appeared to be a slam dunk for the international market: a splashy mainstream hit that felt both of the moment and a throwback to primetime soaps, and global hits, like Dallas and Dynasty. But the show has been a global flop. In the U.K., the first season drew a middling 717,000 viewers on Channel 4's youth-oriented E4 network, a mere 3 percent share, and season 2 has been worse, averaging a 2.2 percent share with 595,000 viewers. The show first season averaged 181,000 viewers on Australia's Channel Ten, prompting a shift to the smaller Eleven network, where season two has averaged just 77,000 viewers an episode. In Canada, broadcaster Rogers Media moved Empire off its free-TV network City after season two ratings dipped to 208,000 viewers, shifting the second half of the season to its online streaming service Shomi. While in Germany, Empire, whichaired in primetime on Pro7, one of the country's leading free-TV networks, attracted less than 1 million viewers per show and fewer than 4 percent of the national audience, a fraction of the channel's regular draw.

"I love the show and we took a big risk on it. But our courage was not rewarded," says Rudiger Boss, head of acquisitions at ProSiebenSat.1, which bought Empire for German TV.

Adds Edwards: "Having a diverse cast creates another hurdle for U.S. series trying to break through; it would be foolish not to recognize that. We are telling our units that they need to be aware that by creating too much diversity in the leads in their show means ... -- problems having their shows translating to the international market."

The diversity issue comes at a particularly perilous time for U.S. television studios because foreign outlets increasingly are creating their own shows or buying from producers in their region. American series simply aren't as popular as they used to be. This is significant because international sales can provide significant revenue. A 2013 study by U.K. group Digital TV Research estimated the sale of U.S. drama series to European television generated $5.4 billion for U.S. rights holders, $1 billion less than in 2008.

But it would be simplistic to call viewers in Europe, Canada or Asia racist. Edwards points to global juggernauts NCIS and CSI "two hugely popular shows, both of which have had versions with diverse actors as major characters, without hurting their performance internationally." The Digital TV Research study appears to confirm this, noting that NCIS generated $205 million in revenue for CBS from sales to Europe in 2012, making it the most valuable imported series. CSI was second on the list, with an estimated $188 million in revenue from European TV sales.

Edwards also notes the success of The Cosby Show "which broke all the rules of international television: a half-hour comedy, with a black cast. And it translated everywhere," she says. "It was the same thing with The Fresh Prince of Bel Air."

"Those shows and the success of the original Roots mini-series proved there is an interest in black stories abroad," says Timothy Havens, a professor in African-American studies at the University of Iowa and author of Black Television Travels: African American Media around the Globe. "But the pattern we've seen, again and again, is that black shows break new ground that white shows benefit from. So Roots was followed by a number of white miniseries that were very successful abroad, Fresh Prince by white youth-oriented shows."

Havens also draws a distinction between shows like CSI and Shonda Rhimes' Shondaland productions (Grey's Anatomy, How to Get Away with Murder) which feature "black faces but non-ethnically specific kinds of stories" and are often very successful worldwide-; and the "specifically black stories" of series like Empire and Black-ish, which tend to sell only to smaller niche networks outside the U.S..

Read More: Slow Progress for Diversity Among Film and TV Writers, Study Finds

A broader issue on the international television market is the difference in viewing habits between U.S. audiences, who have largely embraced complicated story-telling and non-generic drama formats, and international viewers, at least those watching on mainstream channels, who prefer traditional, episodic TV of the NCIS, CSI variety.

"Diversity is an issue with our audience, but it's also the kind of shows coming out of the U.S. now -; almost everything is serial, with long multi-episode story arcs, [and] that doesn't work for us," says Philipp Steffens, head of drama at RTL, Germany's leading commercial network. Out of necessity, RTL in 2015 signed a deal with French network TF1 and NBCUniversal International Television Production to directly produce U.S. series themselves with a European audience in mind. The initial plan sees the financing of two development cycles with a target of producing three series over the next two years.

Says Steffens, "We're hoping the deal will mean we'll get the kind of shows we used to from the U.S."

RELATED: See photos of Taraji P. Henson at the 2016 Golden Globes:

14 PHOTOS
Taraji P. Henson at the Golden Globes 2016
See Gallery
'Empire' flops overseas as foreign viewers resist Hollywood's diversity push
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 10: Actress Taraji P. Henson attends the 73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 10: Actress Taraji P. Henson attends the 73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 10: Actress Taraji P. Henson attends the 73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 10: Actress Taraji P. Henson attends the 73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 10: Actress Taraji P. Henson attends the 73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 10: Actress Taraji P. Henson attends the 73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 10: Actors Taraji P. Henson (L) and Terrence Howard attend the 73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 10: Actors Taraji P. Henson (L) and Terrence Howard attend the 73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 10: In this handout photo provided by NBCUniversal, Presenters Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard speak onstage during the 73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
Actress Taraji P. Henson poses with the award for Best Actress in a TV Series Drama for her role in Empire, in the press room at the 73nd annual Golden Globe Awards, January 10, 2016, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP / FREDERIC J BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
Actress Taraji P. Henson poses with the award for Best Actress in a TV Series Drama for her role in Empire, in the press room at the 73nd annual Golden Globe Awards, January 10, 2016, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP / FREDERIC J BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 10: Actress Taraji P. Henson, winner of the award for Best Performance by an Actress In A Television Series - Drama for 'Empire,' poses in the press room during the 73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 10: Actress Taraji P. Henson, winner of the award for Best Performance by an Actress In A Television Series - Drama for 'Empire,' poses in the press room during the 73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION


Read Full Story

From Our Partners