‘Empire’s’ Slow Burn Blazes Big On Broadcast TV

From left: Dana Walden, Gary Newman, Ilene Chaiken and Bryshere “Yazz” Gray (Hakeem Lyon on “Empire”)

The crowd at Tuesday’s NAB Show General Session, celebrating the second season of Fox’s hit show “Empire,” was hip enough to sing along with the lyrics of its signature song “Drip Drop” as Fox Television Group Chairmen/CEOs  Dana Walden and Gary Newman, showrunner Ilene Chaiken and actor/musician Bryshere “Yazz” Gray took the stage.

Moderator Michael Schneider, executive editor at Indiewire and editor-at-large at Variety, began by asking Gray how he got the part of Hakeem Lyon.

“I was in Philadelphia, working in a basement studio,” Gray said, “and this is a dream come true. I’d been working at Pizza Man when the call came.”

“This is really a show about family, at the heart of it all,” Walden said, “and Yazz really fit in. It always comes back to family, a family fighting together against adversaries.” She feels that “Empire” is about under- served characters with visions and voices that reflect those of the audience. “People feel a sense of authenticity.”

For Chaiken, the show is “bringing entertainment back,” thanks to original episodes and characters people relate to, as well as its integral songs.

“For almost two years, people have been questioning whether you can have this big a hit on broadcast. But we hit like a lightning bolt, partly because we started with a slow burn and then accelerated the buzz to make sure the show did not burn out.”

The show is imbued with stories with social content told by characters with all points of view, she said. “We want the relevance of their lives to come out of the experience of living it with them. That’s how we more fairly represent the viewing audience.”

“We always knew this was going to be about an African-American family,” Walden told the audience, “and the whole first year, as this show became accepted, we called it the ‘Empire effect’ around the studio. Its influence has grown with each episode’s success.”

“Toward the latter half of the season, we wanted to tell stories that brought the family back together,” Newman said. “So that’s the direction we turned the storylines.”

Gray said he never intended Hakeem to be a role model. “But I do want him to be a likeable character. Just not too likeable.”

Chaiken said that’s the freshness a show like “Empire” can bring to the screen. “We are engaging people and storylines that have not been seen before in style or substance.”

Along those lines, Newman said, “I think networks are also coming to recognize the need for more diversity in their casting, and that is what a show like ours embraces. We have a new show called ‘Star’ that is all about the journey of a girl band trying to make it. It’s not a spin-off of ‘Empire,’ but it sort of plays in the same arena.”

“It’s not inconceivable that Hakeem could come touring through at some time, though,” Chaiken added, without making a commitment. “Our focus as we dive into season three is to make ‘Empire’ as good a show as we can.”

Toward the end of the session, moderator Schneider asked about the direction the third season might take.

“You’ll see in the finale of season two we set up a number of things that might take us forward into season three,” Walden said, not giving too much away.

“We’ve seen Hakeem as CEO, but that’s not going to last long,” Newman said.

“He’s going to get more knowledge, listen to his parents, become more likeable,” Gray added. “He’s like a lovable bad boy.”

“And he’s doing fine with the ladies. It is a soap opera, after all,” Schneider said. “Yeah!” Gray said with a smile.

It’s the yin and the yang of a hit Fox show … or, should we say, the drip, drop, drip drippity drop