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How 'Empire' Quickly Became The TV Show To Beat

ARUN RATH, HOST:

For TV executives looking for a sign scripted drama isn't dead, "Empire" has been a godsend. Last week's episode brought in around 11 million viewers. The Fox drama stars Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon, the family patriarch and CEO of Empire Entertainment. When his ex-wife, Cookie, played by Taraji P. Henson, returns from a stint in prison, the stage is set for a classic power struggle.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EMPIRE")

TARAJI P HENSON: (As Cookie Lyon) I want half my company back.

TERRENCE HOWARD: (As Lucious Lyon) (Laughter) I'm sorry, Cookie, but it don't work like that.

HENSON: (As Cookie Lyon) It don't work like what, honey?

HOWARD: (As Lucious Lyon) This company isn't the company that we started 17 years ago.

RATH: NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans has been watching the shows since its premier. He says what's wild about the ratings isn't just the numbers. It's how they've continued to grow.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: They have increased every week that the show's been on. So it started at 9.9 million - almost 10 million. Now, that's a substantial number. That's the kind of number that, for example, "How To Get Away With Murder," the show that was affiliated with Shonda Rhimes - they debuted with that kind of number. That's really solid in prime time, but they increased every week. They went to 10.3 million the next week, 10.9 million the week after that. And the Wednesday that just aired did 11.3 million.

It seems to indicate that there's a strong word-of-mouth happening around this show. People are talking about it in social media. And it's the same way that "Scandal" and "How To Get Away With Murder" also seem to kind of increase their popularity, only this show's doing it much quicker.

RATH: Now, it's an enormous hit with households of color, which I guess is not surprising, but the way it's a hit with them is a little bit different.

DEGGANS: Yeah. Well, what's interesting is this is a show is that is a big hit in terms of general numbers. You know, anyone could look at 11.3 million and say, wow, that's a successful show. But 62 percent of the adults 18 to 49 who are watching this show are African-American, and that is unheard of. And Nielsen says that 33 percent of all black homes are watching this show, so they're seeing something that resonates with them. They're seeing black culture depicted in a way that they're interested in. And there are some lessons there for how network TV can serve underserved audiences and the rewards that come when they do it.

RATH: Now, put on your critic hat for a moment, Eric. Do you like the show? How you like "Empire?"

DEGGANS: So I think this is a great show, and one of the things I like about it is how it deals with issues that African-American communities are struggling with right now. There's a gay character on the show who is the son of a mother and father. Father does not accept his sexuality. The mother does, even though she has some weird ideas about gay people, too. And it mirrors the kind of conversations and the kind of conflicts that people are struggling with in the black community right now. And that comes from the creator, Lee Daniels, and his life because he's a gay man whose father did not accept his sexual orientation, and it feels real. It's coming from a real experience, and I think it's resonating with the audience.

RATH: Now, with something being a huge success like this, people are going to want to replicate that. So is this the start of a new trend?

DEGGANS: Well, I certainly hope that it's the start of a trend where the networks say, if we were reflect life the way it's being lived, then maybe we'll have more success. Fox is one of the most desperate of the broadcast networks. They've had a lot of problems launching new shows, so they were the most open to trying new things. And indeed, I'm hoping that the networks will learn if you present a world that looks like the world that we see when we step outside our front door, maybe you'll be rewarded with an audience. And isn't that a great thing?

RATH: Be a nice thing. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans - Eric, thank you.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.