“Once I picked my mouth up off the floor, the idea of doing originals was intriguing,” says Geoff Bywater, head of music at Fox Television. He’s talking about the network’s high-stakes gamble, the music-focused new drama Empire, set to launch in January, with American Idol as a likely lead-in and promos already airing on maximum-visibility nights like Game 3 of the World Series on Oct. 24.
The one-hour serial conceived by Danny Strong, produced and directed by Lee Daniels (The Butler, Precious) and starring Oscar nominees Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, is about a hip-hop family whose empire is threatened. It name-checks Dynasty in its soap-opera approach but seems to be looking to another ABC franchise, Nashville, for its music-industry plotlines and how to do non-covers right.
Few networks have devoted the airtime, production dollars and marketing efforts into putting music on TV that Fox has. Once formidable powerhouses Idol and Glee — the former going on its 14th year and the latter wrapping for good in 2015 with its sixth season — are both on the network’s primetime slate but very much on the wane, with Idol losing 22 percent of its audience year over year while Glee averaged just 4.5 million viewers during its 2013-to-2014 run.
Bywater is quick to note, “This show is completely different from Glee — it’s really deep in the world of music. We want to make that world feel very real.” Influenced by his real life, Daniels based the core family on his own, borrowing from his sister’s life and even his childhood. “Each character is someone that I know or a little bit of me,” Daniels says. “It was really hard to write and harder to direct, [but] it was therapeutic at the end.”
Also helping to achieve that is hitmaker Timbaland (real name Timothy Mosely), who has signed on as executive music producer on the heels of a new joint venture with Sony Music’s Epic Records. Timbaland brings with him singer V. Bozeman, a protege who’ll appear on the show along with 31-year-old R&B singer Jussie Smollett. Water-cooler star power comes in the form of established stars who’ll have screen turns. Courtney Love has been cast as rock star Elle Dallas (she’ll also sing); Tyler, The Creator will cameo during an A&R meeting; T.I. may play a doctor. An amalgam of music-industry heavyweights is also planned, including nods to Sean Combs, Notorious B.I.G.,Russell Simmons, Berry Gordy, Suge Knight and Andre Harrell.
Despite Timbaland’s deal with Epic, it was another Sony property, Columbia, that beat out “lots of labels,” says Bywater, to become the show’s music partner. “[Chairman] Rob Stringer and [svp A&R] Shawn Holiday had great passion for it, and we worked with them on a historic show.”
There’s that Glee chime again, which, flagging ratings aside, is a warranted one. After all, the TV franchise sold 7.8 million albums and 44.5 million song downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and charted a record 207 entries on the Billboard Hot 100. “We’ll look at a tour and lead into merchandise,” says Bywater. “We’re pretty well-equipped from Glee, which became a big piece of music business and a big piece of TV business.”
On the flip side, Sony has seen mixed results by X Factor grads (girl group Fifth Harmony is sitting pretty with 1.3 million downloads sold, but Alex & Sierra’s debut album has only moved 34,000 units to date) and Glee alums (witness: nonstarters like Naya Rivera), takes its own risk during a time of diminishing returns. Even Nashville hasn’t seen a truly breakout success from its actor-singers. (Holiday insists there are future stars on Empire, particularly Smollett, who the Sony exec says is “going to have a career of a lifetime — his voice, his look, he’s going to be an exciting character from the show.”)
As for the network, it’s been hampered by a mediocre fall, save for Gotham and sports, and also is looking at the tall task of rebuilding under the tutelage of newly appointed Fox Television Group chairmen-CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman. And even the biggest of bona fides doesn’t guarantee that finicky TV viewers will tune in — remember U.S. X Factor? Smash?
“Heading into the first quarter, they could use another franchise to give them that ratings boost, the way Idol had been doing for years,” says Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media, of Fox’s near future. This is a huge priority for the network for midseason. It’s going to get an ‘A+’ push from the network and all the channels they’d market a new show through,” says Mark Pearson, executive vp brand management and digital media, whether that be through additional “overlays” with its original music, focusing on its “multicultural” cast or through Fox Sports. (Last fall, Fox attempted to exploit its NFL and World Series platforms to vault J.J. Abrams‘ Almost Human. The sci-fi drama lasted only a season.)
It’s an uphill battle, to be sure. In the week ending Oct. 26, Fox slipped 22 percent in adults 18-to-49 from the same period in 2013, with the net down more than 1 million viewers, according to Nielsen. In looking to the African-American market, which ABC has proven with hit shows like Black-ish and Scandal to be incredibly engaged in social media and TV viewership, Empire could signal an even more important bellwether. “This show is visiting areas of cultural significance that need to be talked about,” says Bywater. “It will be controversial for good reasons — and soapy ones.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of Billboard.