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'Empire': 6 secrets of the show's success

Taraji P. Henson as Cookie in a scene

Taraji P. Henson as Cookie in a scene from the special two-hour "Die But Once/Who I Am" season finale episode of "Empire," airing Wednesday, March 18, 2015 from 8:00-10:00 p.m. EST on Fox. Credit: AP / Chuck Hodes

The Fox freshman phenom, "Empire," wraps its first season Wednesday night (at 8, Fox/5) with a two-hour finale that will leave lots of questions unanswered. But one question will definitely be answered: Ten in a row?

As in 10 straight weeks of viewership growth -- a historic run for a network prime-time series, especially in today's hypercompetitive environment. "Empire" launched Jan. 7 with 9.9 million viewers, and is expected to easily surpass 15 million Wednesday night.

Week by week, more and more, bigger and bigger, but ...


Let's take a look at six reasons why "Empire" has defied the odds and grown when most new series succumb to the laws of gravity.


1. IT'S A PRIMETIME SOAP FOR THE 21ST CENTURY Fox essentially did a zig, while everyone else has been on a zag. Chasing prestige and inevitably smaller ratings, networks have either forgotten or spurned the art of the Big Brassy Pop Soap, a la "Dynasty" or "Dallas." With "Empire," Fox dusted off some classic soap tropes -- family, power, lust, murder, intrigue, money, glamour -- and filled a void.


2. CROSSOVER APPEAL Conventional wisdom in television has long held that a drama with a largely black cast would appeal solely to a black audience. This "wisdom" hasn't exactly been put to the test all that much -- the last black family drama on one of the major broadcast networks was nearly 35 years ago ("Palmerstown, U.S.A."). Preston Beckman, senior strategist for Fox Networks Group, told me, " 'Empire' started off with a large African-American foundation. As a result, you had an enormous pool of viewers who just assumed this show 'wasn't for me.' Once they discovered that 'Empire' dealt with universal issues and was a big broad soap, it really took off. What started out as a show perceived to be for a specific group became a show with something for everyone."


3. THE MUSIC This is a huge factor in the week-to-week growth, and here's why -- the popularity of the songs, which are released by Columbia Records after each episode, are almost certainly driving some newbies to the show itself. "Empire's" recently released soundtrack -- featuring some established stars like Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson, Courtney Love and Estelle -- quickly flew past a million downloads. (Check out Glenn Gamboa's review.)  Meanwhile, stars Jussie Smollett (Jamal) and Bryshere Y. Gray (Hakeem) already have solo deals in place, and -- as "Glee" and a dozen other series from TV's past have long established -- growing popularity in one realm (TV) invariably drives popularity in the other (music).


4. COOKIE Does Taraji P. Henson's fabulously outrageous scene larcenist Cookie Lyon -- breakout TV character of 2015 -- have anything to do with week-to-week audience growth? Must we even ask? Of course she does. Henson's Cookie is one of those magnetic performances best characterized as "once seen, must see again. . . ." Her outfits alone earn their own subcategory.


5. THE GUESTS "Empire" has been rolling in guest actors on a weekly basis, with Raven-Symoné and Jennifer Hudson as the most recent examples. Been plenty of others, too, including Patti LaBelle, Estelle (in a huge part) and Gladys Knight (in a small but memorable one). None felt like window dressing for promotional purposes because their characters actually lent some value to the organic storytelling. On Wednesday's finale, Snoop Dogg arrives. Guest appearances also have the advantage of drawing the guest's fan base to the show. What sort of draw will Oprah Winfrey get if she appears in the second season, as series creator Lee Daniels has hinted?


6. SOCIAL MEDIA Yes, Twitter and Facebook have driven week-to-week growth, too. The March 11 episode of "Empire," for example, got 750,258 tweets, which means "Empire" has surpassed both "The Walking Dead" and "Scandal" in that particular category. Twitter success like this requires live broadcast viewing -- not day-after viewing. In other words, to engage with other fans, you have to watch on the night of airing. And the more Twitter activity there is, the more there are of those who actually are inclined to watch a day (or two or three) later, instead of opting to watch live.


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