Empire has done the seemingly impossible. In an era where more and more viewers are moving away from watching live TV in favor of time-shifting or online viewing, Fox’s new hip-hop drama not only debuted strong, it actually grew in its second week. At TCA’s winter press tour, star Taraji P. Henson attributed part of that success to viewers being more open to diverse storytelling.
“What you’re seeing is people seeing that shows with people of color can make money, they can do well, they can be successful,” she said. “When things make money, people are interested. With the wave of successful ethnic shows that are on television right now, people want to be a part of it.”
Set against the backdrop of the tantalizing and glamorous world of hip-hop music, the series stars Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon, the head of a music empire whose three sons and ex-wife (Henson) all battle over.
“What [the show’s success] proves and what it shows is that people want to see people that look like them on television, they also want to see people that do not look like them on television,” added Jussie Smollett, who plays Jamal Lyon, the talented and gay son of Lucious. “They want to see a representation of our world on television and our world is not one color.”
More surprising is that the show has attracted so many viewers when its leading character is so unlikable. Described by one critic during the panel as a violent, homophobic murderer with a fatal disease, executive producer Danny Strong noted that they “named him Lucious for a reason.”
Empire‘s success also comes at a time when controversy can quickly derail a career, so critics pressed earlier in the day whether the accusations of domestic violence against Howard had any affect on Fox’s decision making process. “I want to start responding by saying that we’ve been working with Terrence now for just about a year and it’s been a fantastic experience,” Fox Chairman and CEO Dana Walden said. “He’s a leader among that cast. He’s so professional. He’s been so hard working and he’s just been a great partner to us, so our experience with Terrence has been excellent.
“We cast Terrence because our executive producers—Lee Daniels, Danny Strong and Brian Grazer—felt that he was the best actor for that particular role,” she continued. “Our experience with him at that point was being fans of the films he’s done in the past. It seemed like a little bit of a no-brainer. With Terrence, we really didn’t become aware of any of the situation you’re talking about until December. It wasn’t part of the conversation when we cast him… The network executives who have interacted with him have had nothing but a great experience, so it just didn’t come into the conversation.”
Actually, Howard wasn’t the first choice for the role. That honor belonged to Wesley Snipes until Henson suggested her Hustle and Flow co-star for the role to Daniels, who said he was “proud to be working” with Howard.
For his part, Howard concurred that Fox didn’t seem to take any of his past transgressions into consideration because he’s apparently a changed man. “A lot of things that I got involved with in younger days was the product of my environment, the product of not knowing how to deal with frustration, the product of not knowing who Terrence Howard is,” Howard said. “Now I’m married with a new wife and a brand new baby. I’ve grown so much from anything that’s happened in the past.”
Of course, Howard is far from the only celebrity with headlines in the last decade over various allegations, especially with the recent news about Bill Cosby, even going back to Woody Allen. Asked what he wanted to say to critics in that regard, Howard responded, “The only person that can really find the judgement is the judge in the court–or God at the end of the day. You leave it to them. Once you look at what the judges have said, there have been no criminal charges against that person. You have to go by what the judge is saying. If it’s something valid, it’s valid, if it’s not, it’s not. But you’ve got to give people a chance to grow from anything that happens. Remember, Jesus was nailed to the stake on the allegations of him being a blasphemer. I don’t think that was always true. We learned from that lesson. We slayed our messiah under false accusations. We’ve got to give people a chance to show who they are.”
Empire, which was recently renewed for a second season, airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.
More from Fox’s press tour event: