David Zurawik

Hits like 'Empire' signal major shift in look of network TV

Diversity sells.

That's the takeaway from the 2014-2015 network TV season. And as a result, primetime network television, the largest stage in American popular culture, is never going to be as white again.


From "Empire" on Fox to "How to Get Away with Murder" on ABC, the networks bet bigger than ever on series featuring nonwhite characters in leading or featured roles this year, and as the season enters its homestretch, they are reaping the rewards.

Working within a business model where as many as four out of five new series are regularly canceled, the networks are batting almost .500 in the number of rookie shows featuring characters of color that will likely be renewed.


CW has already announced a second season for the telenovela-cum-sitcom "Jane The Virgin," with Latina leading character Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez). ABC has not made it official yet, but star Viola Davis and the producers of ABC's "How to get Away with Murder" have let fans know that the series from creator Shonda Rhimes about a no-holds-barred law professor will be back.

The series was the second-highest-rated new drama of the year and was the top 10 p.m. drama with viewers ages 18 to 49.

"Thank god we'll be back with a whole new season of insanity," said a teaser at the end of the season finale last month.

ABC is also certain to renew Anthony Anderson in "Black-ish," a funny and wise exploration of African-American family life and culture. It is the highest-rated new comedy of the year.

"Fresh Off the Boat," a comic look at an Asian-American family living in suburban Orlando, Fla., has not enjoyed that kind of ratings success, but it is also likely to be renewed based on all the positive buzz it has generated since its arrival on ABC last month.

But no series featuring nonwhite characters and themes about minority life has scored like Fox's music-industry drama "Empire," which ends its first season with a two-hour episode Wednesday night at 8. The finale will include guest appearances by Snoop Dogg, Jennifer Hudson and Patti LaBelle.

The family saga from co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong stars Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon, a Berry Gordy-like entertainment industry mogul, and Taraji P. Henson as his often over-the-top ex-wife, Cookie. He's afflicted with ALS — Lou Gehrig's disease — and looking to groom one of his three sons to take over the business.

Last week, it was the fourth-highest-rated series on TV with 14.7 million viewers. It was also the No. 1 show among viewers ages 18 to 49.


As for its audience among African-American viewers, it is not only No. 1 with 9.5 million viewers, it has almost three times the audience of its nearest competition, ABC's "Scandal."

Those are phenomenal numbers for a series that debuted less than two months ago.

And it is the product of real, behind-the-scenes change, analysts say. And that matters, because such systemic change tends to last — as opposed to programming shifts that come about when network executives chase the latest flavor in popular taste.

"The thing about this explosion of shows is that it's the result of an evolution in the industry itself," says Craig Seymour, a professor at Northern Illinois University, who has written about pop culture for such publications as Vibe and Spin.

"Television is an apprenticeship medium," he adds. "In order to create TV shows, you have to first start out as a writer. And then, maybe you become a head writer. And then after that, a showrunner. And then, finally, maybe you get to create a show."

After decades of limited opportunities for minority writers and producers in Hollywood, Seymour says, a critical mass in minority talent has been realized the last few years, thanks to groundbreaking writer-producers like Rhimes, who have brought other talented minority artists into the industry.


Meanwhile, the ratings success of her series — "Scandal," "Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice" and "How to Get Away with Murder" — has helped to create an big appetite on Network Row and Madison Avenue for well-written and skillfully produced series featuring minority actors in series featuring themes about minority life.

"That's the big difference this season: Most of these shows are created by, inspired by, controlled by people of color," says NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans. "And basically, what happened is that Shonda Rhimes proved that if you let an experienced, talented, black showrunner do her thing, you'll not only get a show where the characters of color are vibrant and interesting, you'll get a show that people will watch. And you'll get a show that people of color will embrace because they see themselves in it or want to see themselves in it."

Pointing to Rhimes' Washington drama, "Scandal," and explaining how it helped shape the new network mentality, Deggans said, "That show was all of those things, right? And now diversity's front and center. 'So, OK, let's give Lee Daniels a shot, and see what he does. And let's give Kenya Barris [creator of 'Black-ish'] and Anthony Anderson a show and see what happens.' And that's how it builds."

Deggans, author of "Race Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation," (St. Martin's Press, 2012), says the networks "don't get enough credit" for the role they played in helping create a climate receptive to good work by minority artists.

"It's hard to create a good show, and all of these shows we are talking about are good," he says. "I'm not sure how it happened, but there is obviously some quality control in the process."

The quality of series like "Scandal" and "Empire" is undeniable — even if they don't get the critical respect in some quarters that a series like "House of Cards" does. Some critics can't get past the soap opera aspects of the dramas.


Danny Strong, creator of "Empire," embraces the sudsy side of the series that he first brought to Daniels as an idea for a "hip-hop, movie musical."

Once Daniels convinced him it would work better as a TV series, "We started talking about it as 'Dallas' and 'Dynasty,'" Strong said last week in a teleconference.

"It was very much in the DNA of the show from the get-go, that we knew we were going to be doing a nighttime soap," he said. "That was going to be the genre that we were working in. But we were going to be subverting the genre by tackling serious social issues head on. That's just a key element of what we thought would make the show interesting and dynamic. It's also very representative of who Lee Daniels and I are as writers and directors and storytellers."

Daniels' credits include directing the feature films "The Butler" and "Precious" and producing "Monster's Ball." In addition to writing "The Butler," Strong's credits include writing the HBO political docudramas "Recount" and "Game Change."

They can go deep and do so in "Empire," with the central story line of Lucious Lyon's homophobia and the damage he has done to his gay son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett). Their depiction of the relationship is shocking, sensitive and more illuminating than anything I have seen on network TV about that dynamic.

Seymour applauds the cultural depth and relevance he sees in the series as it depicts a contemporary, African-American version of the American Dream to an audience of almost 15 million viewers a week.


As he sees it, "Empire" delivers a compelling African-American-based narrative that sounds some of the same themes the Kennedy family saga did for Irish-Americans or "The Godfather" did for Italian-Americans. And it is amplifying that core story line with a rich musical palette — that, in part, surely contributes to its crossover appeal with young adults.

"It's the music in a cultural sense that I think is really interesting," says the author of "Luther: The Life and Longing of Luther Vandross" (HarperEntertainment, 2004).

" 'Empire' speaks to the way hip-hop has become the modern representation of the American Dream for a lot of people. It's the way we now consider Jay-Z and Beyonce our royalty. We even call her Queen Bey," he said.

"Hip-hop represents the American Dream now in the way, let's say, that oil represented the American Dream in the '80s with shows like 'Dallas' and 'Dynasty.' What we're seeing now is just a flip of those values. … This is the moment for hip-hop and 'Empire.'"

And a richer, more diverse primetime network landscape.



The season finale of "Empire" airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday on Fox.