Fox TV bosses are singing a happy tune over the huge revenue potential of their hit music-business series “Empire.”
The scorching show, set around a fictional New York hip-hop record label, saw its audience double to hit 20 million viewers in its debut season. And with music from the series, to which Fox Broadcasting Co. owns the publishing rights, soaring up the charts, the network is planning future cast albums, concert tours and merchandising.
“The business model they are using shares the same DNA as Fox’s ‘Glee,’ but all that ever gave us was covers of previous songs,” said Grammy Award-winning L.A. music producer and songwriter Michael Jay. “ ‘Empire’s’ music is entirely original, and if it can keep generating hits and new artists, then this show can be even bigger than that one.”
“Glee,” which ended its six-season run March 20, has sold 44.5 million song downloads and 7.8 million albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It charted 207 entries on the Billboard Hot 100 and spawned international concert tours that generated tens of millions of dollars.
Meanwhile, “Empire” was the most watched – and most tweeted about – drama series on television this season. With its success, both established and aspiring musical talents are clamoring to get involved in the upcoming second season.
“The show has not only boosted Fox’s ratings and revenues, but been good for the music business, too,” said Jay, who is not involved in the TV juggernaut. “Now everybody in my industry wants in on this action to grab the massive exposure a huge television audience can provide.”
Fil Eisler, the show’s composer, said the “Empire” team has been too busy working on the show to stop and think about the its earnings or impact.
“You have to kind of remove yourself from all that and just concentrate on doing good work,” said the L.A. musician. “It’s pretty exhausting. I work 14 to 18 hours daily to prep the music and put it in front of the orchestra of fantastic musicians to play. But I know how rare it is for a show to become part of the Zeitgeist so quickly and we’re all grateful.”
While the creatives work on the show, other executives have been developing the business plan. Fox has linked with Sony Corp.’s Columbia Records unit for a music marketing strategy of releasing several songs from the show on iTunes immediately after each episode. It’s a model they used to great success when they partnered to promote and sell music from “Glee.”
The policy is working well. The new show’s catalog of songs recently passed 1 million downloads, five songs performed by “Empire” characters are in the top 30 of the R&B charts and a track from the show by guest star Estelle hit No. 1 on the rap chart.
Just released is a compilation soundtrack album featuring the show’s best numbers, including several by big-name guest stars who have appeared on the hip-hop hit, including Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson and Courtney Love. Meanwhile newcomers Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Gray, who play brothers on the show, will each have solo albums released around the time season two debuts. A cast tour is also in the early planning stages.
In the coming days, the production team behind “Empire” – producer and director Lee Daniels, who has called his soap opera “the black ‘Dynasty’”; co-creator and writer Danny Strong; and executive producer and Hollywood veteran Brian Grazer – will meet to plan the future creative and commercial direction of the show.
“I’ve produced a lot of TV shows but nothing quite as volcanic as this,” said Grazer, whose past small-screen hits include “24” and “Friday Night Lights.”
He, Daniels and Strong were quick to recruit a talented music team around them. In addition to composer Eisler, creating most of the songs are red hot producer Timbaland, who has worked with Rihanna, Beyoncé, Jay Z and Justin Timberlake, and his musical partner, songwriter and producer Jim Beanz, who also appears on the show as gangster rapper Titan.
The cast of “Empire” is headed up by Terrence Howard, who plays Lucious Lyon, patriarch of Empire Entertainment. Lyon has set up an inheritance battle between his three sons when his scheming former wife, Cookie, an ex-con played by Taraji P. Henson, arrives with designs on the business herself. Howard and Henson are both Oscar nominees and are joined in each episode by newcomers and a series of such celebrity guests as Naomi Campbell and Judd Nelson.
“Empire,” which debuted as a midseason replacement Jan. 7, wrapped its first season as the most watched show on Fox and became a shining hope for the struggling fourth-place network.
“This show is a game-changer,” acknowledged executive producer Ilene Chaiken, who has produced everything from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” to “The L Word” and was brought in by Fox to be showrunner after the pilot episode showed big potential.
“This a case of perfect alchemy in concept and execution and the kind of magic that comes along only occasionally,” she added.
The phenomenon has become the first series in two decades to gain more viewers with each episode of its first season. Nielsen figures report 16.5 million viewers watched the March 18 season finale. Delayed viewing likely will push that figure beyond the 20 million mark – more than twice the number that tuned in for the first episode in January.
On the social media front, Nielsen also reported an average of 451,270 show-related tweets during each episode, more than nearest rivals “The Walking Dead” on AMC and ABC’s “Scandal.”
Fox has been showing gratitude to the cast and creative team with expensive thank-you gifts.
“We all have Rolexes now. No, really, Fox got us Rolexes,” revealed co-creator Daniels to an audience of Emmy voters at a recent Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ tribute to “Empire.”
At the same event, Daniels announced his friend Oprah Winfrey would be guest-starring as herself in an episode of the second season, a broadcast date for which has not yet been set.
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