"Empire" just wrapped its first season Wednesday night with its best ratings so far.
Now comes the hard part for Fox: How to handle its hip-hop soap smash as it heads into Season 2?
"We're all very excited about it, but we had no idea it would do as well as it's doing," executive producer Brian Grazer, whose company Imagine Television helps make the series, said in an interview Wednesday morning.
With "Empire," Fox has landed the top-rated new series on broadcast TV in more than a decade — and a show more popular in black households than even the Super Bowl, according to Nielsen. This week's finale — a two-hour block consisting of a pair of episodes with the now-familiar mix of surprise twists, criminal misdeeds and catfights — drew an average of 16.7 million total viewers, according to Nielsen.
Not bad for what co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong — who earlier collaborated on the feature "Lee Daniels' The Butler" — envisioned as a contemporary update of prime time soaps such as "Dynasty." The "Empire" crowds tuned in each week to see the juicy power struggle in a clan headed by middle-aged record mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and his volatile ex-con ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson).
"It just keeps you really involved, at the edge of your seat," Grazer said. "You say, 'I cannot believe this is going to happen this week.' "
But now it's Fox's turn to be on the hot seat. Before "Empire," the network was struggling in a creative fallow period.
"American Idol," the singing contest that had kept the network atop the ratings for years after its 2002 premiere, has been stumbling with age as it tries to fend off stiff competition from NBC rival "The Voice." So how Fox executives manage their new "Empire" could prove critical to not only the network's future but also to prime time overall.
"Empire" costs more than $3 million per episode to make, according to industry estimates, which is within line with typical network drama budgets these days. "The show has been made at a very smart price," Grazer said, without confirming specifics. "It's not expensive."
Even so, executives say "Empire's" elaborate musical sequences — featuring top guests such as Mary J. Blige and Snoop Dogg — have taken much longer to film than typical dramatic fare on TV. "The music has been the biggest challenge," said Ilene Chaiken, who co-created Showtime's "The L Word" and was brought in as show runner.
Therefore, a full order of 22 episodes for the 2015-16 season is considered highly unlikely, with 12 to 18 episodes under active discussion. Should the show start in the fall, or be saved for winter?
Could the season be split into two parts, as is now common on cable networks? What if executives move it to a new night to help bolster another part of the Fox schedule?
"We're trying to get ahead of it for next season," said Joe Earley, chief operating officer of the Fox Television Group. "It's absolutely under discussion now what the episode order will be." To do that, he added, Fox will have to balance its scheduling needs with what the producers are able to deliver with consistent quality.
The series is such a top priority that for the last two months, Fox executives have been toiling on what they call a bridge plan, designed to keep viewers engaged with the show until the arrival of fresh episodes, Earley said. Among them: a contest, announced during the finale, that gives fans the chance to win a walk-on role.
The ratings demonstrate why the pressure is on. "Empire" expanded its audience every single week — a singular feat in an era of fragmented audiences and exploding competition.
In a staggeringly short period, "Empire" leaped up among the most-popular programs on TV. AMC's zombie epic "The Walking Dead," the No. 1 series on cable, scored 17.3 million for its Season 5 premiere in October — but it took the show years to reach that level of popularity.
The most-watched drama on TV, CBS' crime series "NCIS," has averaged 19.1 million total viewers this season, but it has only about half as many of the advertiser-coveted young-adult viewers as "Empire."
"This show has been on this amazing, phenomenal trajectory that defies all laws of television," Earley said.
A compilation of the show's music opened at No. 1 on the Billboard charts this month — the first for a TV soundtrack since Fox's "Glee" achieved that mark five years ago. "Empire" is also a smash on social media. The finale generated 2.4 million tweets during its airing. Some websites even live-blogged the program for fans.
Some experts say Fox should relish its hit now.
"The ratings are quite solid and have shown growth," said Jeffrey McCall, a media professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. But "my guess is that show's popularity will drop off somewhere in Season 2."
McCall argued that before "Empire," soaps had all but disappeared from prime time for good reason. "They are hard to keep interesting and require careful and extensive development of plot twists," he said. Soaps "also do poorly in reruns and syndication" — partly because they are so dependent on surprises and cliffhangers.
But the producers are confident that the music will keep viewers coming back — plus the show's treatment of hot-button subjects such as race relations and homophobia.
"We also subvert the genre by attacking social issues," Strong said.
Whatever happens next season, Fox right now has a hit that is driving not just TV but music as well — in the same way that "Idol" and "Glee" have done.
Grazer's in-box is already filling with requests from top musical acts angling for some exposure next season.
Before "Empire" premiered, he said, getting musicians on-board was a tough sell. "The record labels just felt like, 'No, no, we can't do that.'
"Now, they all want it."