Empires rise and empires fall. The meteoric rise of hip-hop soap opera “Empire” was great for Fox just a few years ago, but the show’s once giant Nielsen ratings consequently set up an epic fall, and the Lyons (the fictional family at the center of the show) are now limping to the finish line in their final season.
The Season 6 start for “Empire,” the show’s first season premiere since Jussie Smollett left, sunk 47% in ratings from the Nielsen numbers for the opening episode for Season 5, according to TV ratings company’s Live + Same Day data covering the important adults 18-49 demographic.
On a percentage basis, that decline is the show’s largest from season premiere to season premiere.
The story was about the same in total viewers. By that all-encompassing metric, the “Empire” Season 6 premiere dropped 46% from Season 5’s initial hour. Previously, the harshest total-viewer disparity between two consecutive season premieres had been -35%, the drop off between Episodes 301 and 401.
Adding a week of catch-up viewing to each of the show’s six season premieres paints a slightly better retention story — but again, the operative word here is “slightly.”
The Sept. 24, 2019 Season 6 premiere still has the harshest declines from its predecessor in Nielsen’s Live + 7 Day ratings. (Again, this is on a percentage basis, where smaller starting points lead to more dramatic swings. More actual eyeballs were lost between Seasons 2 and 3 and then to a lesser extent between Seasons 3 and 4.)
“Empire” is certainly not alone in seeing dramatic drops from Fall 2018 — especially in terms of “live” viewing. In the era of “Peak TV” and binge-watching, scripted shows are not considered appointment television, and delayed-viewing continues to account for a larger and larger percentage of any episode’s eventual audience tally.
It’s important to reiterate that in many ways, “Empire” is a victim of its own massive early success. The show started off hot, and then it got really huge. There was only one direction to really go from there. It was just a matter of time. In this case, the time was six seasons, which most dramas do not live to see.
See how this drama has performed in each season premiere in the chart, below. The top portion is “live” ratings, the lower one is inclusive of one-week’s delayed viewing.
We focused on season premieres here in part because they are generally among a show’s highest-rated episodes. Premieres also tend to get front loaded tune-in, meaning fans don’t like to wait a long while to catch-up via DVRs or on-demand.
Mainly, however, we targeted the “Empire” season premieres for this story because Episode 601 is the only Season 6 episode we currently have Live + 7 data for. Nielsen released that data to clients on Tuesday of this week.
The downward trend continues with each episode. Also on Tuesday, “Empire” set new series lows in terms of demo ratings and total viewers, according to Nielsen’s Live + Same Day numbers. We expect that result to repeat numerous times throughout Season 6.
As “Empire” viewers will remember, Smollett was written out of the final few episodes of Season 5 after Chicago prosecutors charged him with multiple counts of filing a false police report, though those charges were later dropped as part of a deal requiring him to perform community service and forfeit $10,000 bond.
We’re betting that even non-“Empire” viewers will remember Smollett’s account of what happened on Jan. 29, 2019. The actor/singer told Chicago police that two men in “MAGA” hats shouted racial and homophobic slurs, beat him, put a noose around his neck and doused him with bleach.
Over the following days, holes in Smollett’s story came to light. Two suspects were arrested, but they said Smollett paid them to stage the attack. As it turned out, at least one of the men worked with Smollett on “Empire.”