FOX’s Dana Walden and Gary Newman talk ‘Empire,’ diversity in TV and monetization at the 2016 NAB Show


FOX’s blockbuster television drama “Empire” certainly has eye-popping numbers to boast about: a total multiplatform audience of 23 million, a more than 20 percent lead over the second most popular broadcast show and 39 nominations for a variety of prestigious awards, for example. But stopping at the show’s numbers and rankings is missing the larger story. At the 2016 NAB Show, an annual event hosted by the National Association of Broadcasters for the media and entertainment industry, Fox Television Group chairmen and CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman were joined by “Empire” executive producer and showrunner Ilene Chaiken and “Empire” star Bryshere “Yazz” Gray to talk about the show’s broader significance to FOX and the industry as a whole.

On Tuesday, they sat down with Michael Schneider, executive editor at Indiewire and editor-at-large at Variety, for a lively and wide-ranging session titled “FOX’s ‘Empire’: Inside the Megahit Broadcast Series.” Here are some of the key quotes:

On how important “Empire” is to FOX:

Dana: “It really is a show that epitomizes our brand: it’s bold, it’s original, it features this cast of people who are bringing the entertainment bar up so high… So I would say that for Gary and I, now having been at the network for almost two years, ‘Empire’ is really what we hold out to people as what the FOX brand stands for, so it means a lot to us in terms of what the statistics are, and we’re really proud. At the point when ‘Empire’ premiered, people were questioning whether you could have that big a hit on broadcast, and it was such an extraordinary lightning bolt for viewers. What I think the network did in a really effective way is – if you give us that show, we’ll make it an event for our audience, and that’s what we try to do with it every single week and in between the hiatuses and throughout the bridge. We spend so much time talking about what’s the right amount of ‘Empire’ that should be in the market to start a slow burn and then to accelerate that buzz and then to relaunch. So our whole team loves the show, and you can feel that.”

On how FOX is taking steps to ensure that “Empire” has a long, sustainable run:

Gary: “It’s something we talk about a lot: How do you keep this show from burning too hot? We get offers all the time on this series for brand tie-ins and other things, and we’re pretty conservative about it. We aren’t looking to have the greatest two-year run in the history of television – we’re looking to build a franchise that can really sustain… I think if you’re going to be a successful network, you have to have credibility with an audience, and you need an audience to have some expectation of what they get when they decide to invest in a FOX show and show up. So for us, coming out of the box, really, in our first year with a show that was so meaningful to our audience I think lays the groundwork for, ‘We said you’d love that one, and you did. Here’s ‘Lucifer’ – you’re going to love this one. Or here’s ‘The X-Files.’’ We’re going to do it right. I think the more you can connect with your audience and meet and even exceed their expectations, I think that gives you that goodwill that enables you to start moving your brand out a little bit and hopefully bring in the audience.”

On “Empire” and pushing the issue of diversity into primetime:

Dana: “I think ‘Empire’ was so important to the television business and a push into programming that more fairly represents the viewing audience. I will say though that I just fundamentally believe diversity starts behind the cameras. So when you look at ‘Empire’ and you start with Lee [Daniels] and Danny [Strong] and Brian [Grazer], you’re starting with a diverse executive producer group. The vision was always for this to be an African American family; there was never any conversation about it. And really, having virtually an all-black cast – at the point we premiered, people used to say, ‘What a bold choice.’ And for us it was, ‘There was no other choice. That’s what the show is.’ That’s the purest version of this show – that’s the vision. But once it premiered and it was such a big hit, we called it the ‘Empire’ effect. That entire year, diversity came up and other networks – Gary and I oversee the 20th Century Fox Television studio as well as the networks, so we are in business with other networks through our studio. And on each of the pilots, we would get the mandate: ‘You must have a diverse cast. Who are your diversity characters?’ And again, I would suggest to you that’s really retrofitting a project to check boxes. When we are in development, it has to start at the very beginning with the characters.”

On how “Empire” will affect this pilot season:

Gary: “As Dana said, the success with a diverse cast, I think, has opened the eyes of networks to the possibility that there’s a very underserved population of TV viewers out there who are interested in seeing shows that reflect more of their experience. I think probably you’ll see more diversity in casting than in past years.”

On “Empire” and its Pepsi story arc and product integration:

Gary: “There are so many people who played a role in it, starting right here with Ilene and the writing staff, who were breaking a story for Season 2 about taking Jussie [Smollet]’s character, Jamal, and turning him into sort of a big star. As they were thinking about what are the sorts of things that symbolize having made it, the idea of becoming a commercial spokesman came up. Simultaneously there were conversations going on over at the network with Pepsi, who was looking for ways other than 30-second spots to connect with the audience, and they loved ‘Empire’… It was one of those few situations where it’s just so organic it actually added to the element. Oftentimes when you try to integrate a product into a show, you almost feel as if you’re taking something away from the show because you limit the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief because all of a sudden someone’s shaking a product in front of the camera and it just doesn’t feel real. This was incredibly organic. The staff did an amazing job weaving it into a several-story arc where it felt legitimately part of the show… Across the advertising industry, we’re hearing from many, many big advertisers: ‘We want our Pepsi moment.’ So there’s the ‘Empire’ effect, and now there’s the Pepsi effect.”

On FOX’s goals for this upfront season:

Dana: “Going into development season, we targeted about 30 percent as the number of additional development. So we have more pilots than we’ve ever done in the past… We’re trying to balance things you’ve heard of with new and launch them together. We’ve already picked up about 12 of our series, so I think we’re going to have the most stable schedule we’ve had in many years. Stability is a little bit key for us, having been at the studio for so long and observing networks and where they change too much and where they respect their audience and leave pieces in place. And we’re going to look at shows like ‘Empire’ and use them very successfully. We’re not going to move them all over our schedule – fans know where to find the No. 1 show on broadcast. So I would look forward to stability, some recognizable IP and then some classic FOX, big swings.”

On the difficulty of monetizing television during the industry’s current shift:

Gary: “What you’re seeing across our industry is that the whole idea of keeping series scarce so later you can monetize it is completely collapsed. People are impatient. They want their programming now; they want it the way they want it, when they want it. It requires a great deal of flexibility and a willingness to step into unchartered territory. So more and more, we’re trying to make our shows available to the consumer as easily as possible, in an environment where it can be monetized, either through subscription fees, or on platforms that are receiving subscription fees and paying us a license fee, or through platforms that have advertising. It isn’t easy, but I feel confident… If you’re in the business of creating great premium content, which I think our company is really at the forefront of, you’re going to find your rewards, so long as you keep it simple. Get it to the consumer, get it to them conveniently, try to put it in an environment where it’s priced fairly and people will embrace it.”

Watch the full session on the NAB Show website.