‘Empire’ returns to FOX tonight after its winter hiatus.
After the show’s runaway success in the United States during season 1, the show has seen declining ratings at home and has been struggling for viewership overseas.
The overseas ‘flop’ is being attributed to the fact that international audiences aren’t really feeling the same push for diversity as we are in the United States.
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 two has fared 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, which aired in primetime onPro7, one of the country’s leading free TV networks, attracted fewer than 1 million viewers per show and less 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.
“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,” says Marion Edwards, president of international TV at Fox.
While diversity does play a role, Edwards adds that there may be more reasons behind the fledgling audience.
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.”
Well, let’s be honest — ‘Empire’ is no ‘The Cosby Show’ or ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’!