“The streets aren’t made for everybody. That’s why they made sidewalks.” — Cookie Lyons
So goes one of Cookie Lyons’s most memorable quotes from FOX’s breakout television show, Empire, and so goes the precipitous demise of broadcast television, with an estimated 16% of broadcast television viewers leaving for streaming, and other digital media every year.1 But whereas most new shows experience lukewarm returns on investment at best, Empire has managed to break ratings records and cultural boundaries.
In its first season, Empire became broadcast television’s #1 new show and #1 scripted broadcast program, the first show to do so since Grey’s Anatomy over a decade before, and the first – and most profitable – show in history to do so with a predominantly black cast.2
A large part of Empire’s success can be traced back to its creators’ and network’s expanded view of the television show’s business model.
- Ratings and Marketing $ – At its core, Empire is a business that strives to create a bold scripted drama that appeals to a broad audience by maximizing ratings, which advertisers use as a benchmark for where to place their marketing dollars. Empire has tapped into a relatively ‘untapped’ market of viewers – and in turn a relatively ‘untapped’ demographic for advertisers – with an audience over-indexing on African-American viewers.3
- Record Sales – By virtue of Empire being a drama about the music industry, the program has expanded the traditional television business model to include sales of the music created and performed on the show. Columbia Records releases weekly soundtracks on iTunes, and an “official soundtrack” of the show at the end of the season.3 Singles from the show have risen as high as #4 on the iTunes chart, and have even secured some actors record deals of their own.4
- Corporate Sponsorships – Lastly in Empire’s business model, an additional revenue stream that the program has created involves corporate sponsorships with PepsiCo and Lincoln Motor Company.6 While the monetary details of these deals aren’t public, deals similar to PepsiCo and Lincoln’s that involve product placement and prominent corporate integration into the program have been estimated to be valued at as much as $100M.7
Empire has been able to deliver on its business model in a way that arguably no other show on television has through its operating model, that marries the creative and business inner-workings of the show.
Writing with a Diverse Perspective
In order to deliver on the show’s primary focus of boosting ratings, Empire has relied on a unique writers’ room. The Empire writers’ room is first and foremost one of the most diverse working in television today – from race to gender to socioeconomic background to sexuality. Writers are encouraged to write from their own experiences, which in turn creates a program that is powerfully relevant, addressing issues including racism, homophobia, spirituality, and mental illness.
Additionally, Empire has a process style unique to writers’ rooms in Hollywood. When starting on scripts for new episodes, writers pitch ideas for new storylines. To encourage a wide start of their innovation funnel, instead of the normal free-pitch format that most writers’ rooms adopt, the Empire writing room is structured to rotate the first-pitch opportunity at the start of every brainstorm, with the youngest staff member kicking off the season. As staff writer Damilare Sonoiki (currently the youngest writer on the Empire staff) describes, “These guys are brilliant – with Lee Daniels sitting at the head of the table? I could have easily ‘put up’ or ‘shut up,’ but I had to ‘put up’ on day one.”8
Combined, these operational decisions make for a broad and timely perspective that is often cited as a defining ratings-driver for the show.9
Music as a Forethought
With music playing such a central role in Empire, the show’s producers brought in respected talent to lead the music production group, and transformed the placement of music production in the show’s creative process timeline.
Show creator Lee Daniels’s music choice is self-described as “dated,”10 and as such, chose to bring in famed musician and producer Timbaland to lead the show’s music production team. Whereas music production typically falls at the tail end of a television show’s production, Timbaland and team are brought in towards the beginning of an episode’s creative process, collaborating with the writing team to get an idea of the plot from the onset so they can create music that fits the theme.11 By creating a sort of parallel process, Empire is able to allow its creative minds more time and fluidity in building their product, and creates an optimal product for the program itself – which boosts ratings, and corporate sponsorship potential – and also creates high quality music for the show that can then be translated into additional record sale revenue.
The Fox Advertising and Sales Group shifted focus from their traditional ad placement sales to include sales for strategic alliances with companies like PepsiCo, in order to boost the corporate sponsorship arm of its business plan. The group worked with the creative team to craft for sponsor PepsiCo its own story arc. In Season 2, Episode 8, one of the stars of the show competes to become the next face of Pepsi. Two episodes later, when he’s about to show his new ad, the show immediately cuts to an actual commercial break and seamlessly shows the new PepsiCo ad across television screens, VOD screens, and streaming services alike.12 This level of product integration creates altogether appealing corporate sponsorship opportunities unlike anything seen before in the industry.
Empire has fundamentally changed the way entertainment companies view television business models. While business in television once solely meant ratings and advertiser revenues, production companies are quickly finding that by combining creative and business elements, programs can create operating models that allow their television businesses to flourish.
As Hakeem Lyons says, “I don’t wanna win the game. I wanna change it.”13
Phone Interview with Damilare Sonoiki, December 2nd, 2015