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'Empire' is TV's hottest new hit. So how does it stay on top?

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MARC HOM for EW

The numbers don’t lie, baby : At nearly 17 million viewers, the March 18 finale of Empire ranked as the most watched freshman-season ender since Grey’s Anatomy in 2005. The soapy series about a family hip-hop dynasty is a bona fide hit, so plenty of players deserve attaboys—not just for outranking The Big Bang Theory but for delivering Fox’s first hit in six years.

And therein lies the challenge: How does a network reward actors and writers for groundbreaking work while keeping budgets in check and—most important—the show’s creative future on a solid footing?

The most pressing question for Empire is whether Fox will attempt to capitalize on its success by demanding more episodes for season 2. Here’s why it shouldn’t: One of the reasons executive producers Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, Brian Grazer, and Ilene Chaiken were able to serve up such a provocative series about the crazy-talented (and sometimes just crazy) Lyon family is because they had to make only 12 episodes for the midseason lineup. But now that Fox has a show that’s buzzing, it may increase the order to 18 and ask Empire to make a quick turnaround and come back in the fall.

“Brian, Lee, and Danny set out to do a broadcast show,” explains Fox Television Group chairman and CEO Dana Walden. “They didn’t set out to do a cable show where it was a story engine that was appropriate for a smaller number of episodes. I would liken it more to the Shonda shows and The Good Wife. I fully anticipate that we will do more episodes of Empire next season.”

But unlike Grey’s and Good Wife, which have a procedural element that helps power a full season, Empire is a rich soap opera that deserves lots of nurturing—creating such chilling murders and oddly glamorous catfights is no small feat, after all. And no one should appreciate the power of patience more than Fox, which watched Glee and Sleepy Hollow falter creatively in their second years because of overwhelming expectations.

In fact, shooting in Chicago without the worry of having to premiere in September helped the production unfold without the pressures or attention of the outside world. By the time the show debuted, most of the season’s episodes had already wrapped. “What worked to get us to this point was us following our story instincts, not following the audience,” says Strong.

But now fans are rabid, and the stars are nothing if not aware of their rising popularity. Series regulars typically sign six-year deals that aren’t renegotiated until the third or fourth season, but that doesn’t stop them from asking for more, especially as success grows and workloads become more taxing. (There’s already talk of a Glee-like music tour, but that’s only in the discussion stage.) Consider Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, who migrated from the big screen to portray Lucious and Cookie. It’s a move that can make for fantastic television, but one that forces actors to commit to years of work on a single project.

“They start with all this hopefulness and all of a sudden in success they’ll be [like], ‘I’m gonna be doing this a long time. My life is going to suck,'” says one high-level executive at a competing studio. “The only way to take the pain away is to get a shitload of money.” (Gifts can offer a temporary salve: Walden and chairman and CEO Gary Newman rewarded the Empire cast and producers with Rolex watches during a lavish celebratory dinner at Nobu in West Hollywood earlier this month.)

Howard, for one, would like to follow in the footsteps of actors like James Spader (The Blacklist) and Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife) by snagging a producing credit. “I need to be one of them cooks in the kitchen,” says the actor. “I want to sit down and I want to be there while the scripts are being written out and the outlines of it, because I don’t like playing Cracker Jack—open it up and there’s a prize, this is what you’re doing today.”

As the writers prepare to reconvene this spring, Chaiken speaks confidently about the future. “I believe Fox loves the show as much as we do and wants as much as we want for it to continue to be great,” she says, hinting that season 2 will further explore Lucious’ gritty past, not to mention address the still-secret murder of Vernon. “I’m just going to trust in them, and then whatever it is they need, that’s what we’ll do.” With luck, all of Empire‘s drama will stay on the screen.

Additional reporting by James Hibberd and Tim Stack. 

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