Why 'Empire' is ruling: The secrets to TV's new 'Dynasty'

From left, Taraji P. Henson as Cookie and Terrence Howard as Lucious on
From left, Taraji P. Henson as Cookie and Terrence Howard as Lucious on


Fox Entertainment president David Madden tells TheWrap what he believes to be the secrets to the primetime soap opera's success

Guns, glamour, hip-hop royalty, melodrama, music, tragedy - just some of the reasons "Empire" is Fox's new phenomenon.

It has grown in either the key demo rating or in total viewers - or both - during each of its first four weeks, a feat rarely seen in TV today. But, why does it continue to grow?

Looking beyond the impressive Nielsen numbers, Fox Entertainment president David Madden is more interested in anecdotally pointing out that his new hit has become a "cultural phenomenon."

"It has clearly gone past the level of a successful show," he stated.

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Madden is correct, but again, why? Well, it's a combination of many things. One being that "Empire" has tapped into an underserved African-American market, which is true, and a TV trend this season. While it is no mystery that Fox targeted black viewers, they also intended to nab women, which they've accomplished by exploiting the soapy elements of the show.

TheWrap already wrote about the target market weeks ago, alongside the advertising plan that has given the network a great return on investment. Though both bear repeating, the series' creative aspects are what this story is focused on.

"Neither Lee [Daniels], nor Danny [Strong], nor Ilene [Chaiken] ... have made any secret of the fact that they are aiming for a lot of the same feel and tone of shows like 'Dynasty' and 'Dallas,'" Madden said. "We all love to see people at very high levels - levels of royalty - who are bashing each other and bringing other down. That's been a staple of drama since the ancient Greeks."

In addition to Daniels, Strong and Chaiken, Brian Grazer is an executive producer on the series.

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Two more demographics points before abandoning them completely: First, a by-product of the show cast with minorities has been a strong Hispanic following - a great demo to do business with in 2015.

Second, and obviously separately, Madden was also quick to point out that "Empire" is actually the second-best new show among men - behind only his other freshman hit, "Gotham." Surely males respond more to certain facets of his show that are more prevalent in hip-hop than say country music, explaining why "Empire" resonates more here rather than say ABC's "Nashville - a question we asked Madden to explain.

"One difference is that the rap and hip-hop world has been largely unexplored on the major broadcast networks," Madden theorized on the show's hispanic and male audiences. "There is a rich history of incredible music in that world, but there's also been a bit of danger to it. And that creates more sense of melodrama. The hip-hop music business can be a fertile ground for high stakes drama."

"We have a show that clearly is tapping into people's sense of authenticity," he added. "Right now, people are relishing the 'Oh my God I can't believe I just saw that' experience of the show. We're trying to support that."

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Creators Daniels and Strong, alongside showrunner Chaiken (whom Madden told TheWrap plays a "more critical day-to-day part than she gets credit for"), are getting all of Fox's support. They're also getting a ton of praise from Madden and Co., alongside their high expectations.

"They are actually pretty disciplined storytellers," Madden said of "Empire's" creative team. "They're aware that sometimes you watch a show like this for those - to use a dated phrase - water cooler moments."

He continued, "We're expecting them to deliver those moments, and so far we haven't had to pull them back."

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With the success of "Empire," Madden expects to see some copycat shows across the competitive landscape. Such is the nature of television.

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," he said. "Anytime anybody sees anything working, it's like, 'Oh well that's working, let's try that.'"

And Fox isn't immune, Madden admitted. "It's a temptation we have to resist ourselves - trying to imitate our own shows."

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Whether those almost-certain imitators work or not is another story. After all, stars have to align for a hit in 2015 - and "Empire's" actual stars have also propped the show up creatively, something that would be difficult to recreate.

"You're casting people to play royalty, you needed royalty," Madden said of Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. "They have that same kind of size and grandeur that Jay Z has and Beyonce has."

And the music - which Madden calls "honest but not alienating" - is surely a star itself. Though it may not be up to "Drunk in Love" snuff, it's working - just check out the iTunes charts and/or critical reception.

"What Timbaland did so brilliantly is he found a way to make the music feel authentic if you're a hip-hop person, and still very accessible if you're not," Madden said of "Empire's" music supervisor.

Madden teased that two of Timbaland's very best songs have been saved for the season finale, so save some Apple bucks for then.

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All told, the Fox executive cannot overstate the importance of "Empire" to his network at a time where the last-place broadcaster could use every hit it gets, though that didn't stop him from trying at the end of our phone call.

"Every conversation begins and ends with 'Empire.' We start every meeting talking about 'Empire,'" Madden reiterated.

"This is not just a hit, this is a show that is game-changing, and we want to do everything we can to keep that experience going, to keep that fire burning, and at the same time use that as a platform to support our other shows, to launch our other shows," he concluded.

"Empire" airs Wednesdays on Fox at 9 p.m.