- Fox TV’s ‘Empire’ is midway through its fifth season.
- Fox TV has yet to renew ‘Empire’ for another season.
- A recent scandal involving cast member Jussie Smollett has clouded the future of ‘Empire’.
Earlier this week, I was interviewed by a website about my odds on the forthcoming season of Project Runway. Among other things I was asked about what I consider to be the ‘most exciting part’ of my job. My answer was essentially that it’s ‘never a dull moment’ and there’s always something different to present an odds making challenge.
Case in point–the future of the Fox TV series Empire. The show is currently in its fifth season and as of yet has not been renewed for another year. There has been some speculation that the network would pull the plug on what has been a critically acclaimed and highly rated TV show. Here’s the description of Empire from the Fox TV website:
Golden Globe-nominated EMPIRE continues to be one of the most popular and acclaimed shows on television. A powerful drama about a family dynasty set within the glamorous and sometimes dangerous world of hip-hop music, the show revolves around the Lyons and their media company, Empire Entertainment.
Sounds interesting enough. Recently, however, the ‘meta’ of the show’s plot has thickened considerably due to a bizarre scandal involving cast member Jussie Smollett. In late January, the openly gay Smollett reported to Chicago Police that he was the victim of what was described as an attack possibly ‘motivated by racism and homophobia’. Here’s how the Hollywood Reporter described the incident at the time:
“The 36-year-old actor was exiting a restaurant in the 300 block of East North Water Street when two suspects began yelling racial and homophobic slurs toward him. They then proceeded to attack Smollett, punching him before pouring an unknown chemical substance over him, police said. At some point during the attack, one of the suspects wrapped a rope around Smollett’s neck.”
In a statement released to the media the Chicago Police indicated that “Given the severity of the allegations, we are taking this investigation very seriously and treating it as a possible hate crime.” In a subsequent interview with investigators Smollett made statements that tacitly implicated Donald Trump supporters:
“The suspects were described by police to THR as two males wearing black clothing. One offender was wearing a black mask. There were no other identifying characteristics. Around 4:35 p.m., police confirmed to THR that Smollett told them his attackers yelled pro-“Make America Great Again” (MAGA) comments during the attack, such as “MAGA country!””
On its surface, it sounds like a horrifying incident perpetrated by a couple of absolute bottom feeders. Needless to say, the sympathies of millions were with Smollett including the Fox TV network:
“We are deeply saddened and outraged to learn that a member of our Empire family, Jussie Smollett, was viciously attacked last night. We send our love to Jussie, who is resilient and strong, and we will work with law enforcement to bring these perpetrators to justice. The entire studio, network and production stand united in the face of any despicable act of violence and hate — and especially against one of our own.”
A month after the initial reports of Smollett’s alleged assault the story took a turn for bizarre. Chicago Police reported that Smollett had been taken into custody. He was initially charged with one count of filing a false police report but has since been indicted by a grand jury on a total of 16 felony counts. Federal law enforcement has started to investigate if Smollett had sent a threatening letter to himself prior to the attack. According to law enforcement, Smollett was unhappy with his salary on and perpetrated the alleged hoax as a publicity move. He initially sent the threatening letter and after it didn’t gain the attention he had hoped for he raised the stakes. They assert that he hired two brothers to ‘attack’ him. Brothers Ola and Abel Osundairo were questioned by police after being spotted on surveillance video and now claim that they were hired to serve as ersatz attackers.
Smollett has maintained his innocence and stands by his original account of being attacked. He’s obviously innocent until proven guilty but the producers of Empire made the decision to ‘sideline’ him from the two remaining episodes of this season that have yet to be filmed. They gave the justification of doing it for the benefit of the cast and crew of the show due to the ‘distraction’ the ongoing media frenzy surrounding Smollett has caused and will no doubt continue to cause as everything plays out in the legal system.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR EMPIRE?
Got all that? I have no interest in considering the merits of Smollett’s claims and/or the case against him. From my view, the more salient question concerns the future of Empire. Since the show hasn’t been renewed already some have made the dubious deductive leap that this will lead to the show’s cancellation. There have been any number of clickbait stories posted online fueling this speculation. More serious thinking analysis has suggested that cancelling the series in response to the Smollett situation would be overkill:
In the past, a handful of TV shows have been abruptly canceled in the wake of their star’s alleged criminal activities. In 2009, the VH1 reality show “Megan Wants a Millionaire” was canceled mid-season once it was revealed that contestant Ryan Jenkins was suspected of murdering his wife, whose body was found in a suitcase. In 2015, reality show “19 Kids and Counting” pulled the plug after eldest son Josh Duggar’s history of molesting his siblings came to light.
However, those extreme cases need not apply to “Empire” because its scripted nature gives it enough distance from reality. Jamal is not Smollett. Besides, “Empire” is one of Fox’s stronger performing dramas, boasts an inclusive cast, and therefore is worth keeping around from a business standpoint. Also, Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson are enough of a draw to lead the Lyon family’s story, which doesn’t rest on any one supporting character.
Some of the rationalization for using Smollett’s situation as an opportunity to cancel Empire has been based on the fact that the show’s viewership has declined over time. The viewership has gone from an average of 17.33 million in 2015’s Season 1 to 7.45 million in the last full season which began in late 2017 and ended in mid 2018. Do you know what else has seen their viewership drop over the past five years? Pretty much every other show on traditional television. Although worldwide media consumption continues to rise both the number of people watching television and the time they spend watching it continue to drop. Even though Empire’s average viewership is expected to drop even further to the range of 5.5 million for the current season that’s a decent audience aggregation for the post digital revolution television landscape. Some media observers have even suggested that ratings no longer define the success of a TV series.
Two more likely scenarios–the role of Smollett’s character Jamal could be recast or written out altogether. One report suggests that series co-creator Lee Daniels favors the recasting option since the character is loosely based on himself. On the other hand, Jamal wouldn’t be the first character to be written out of a script or even go the way of Chuck Cunningham and just pretend he never existed.
I do a lot of odds involving TV ratings and my ‘go to’ site for relevant statistical data is TV BY THE NUMBERS. In addition, they offer their educated assessment on whether TV series will be renewed or cancelled. The recurring feature known as ‘Cancel Bear’ assigns a rating to series with an as of yet unknown fate. The ranking goes from ‘one bear’ which means ‘sure bet to be cancelled’ to ‘five bears’ which means ‘sure bet to be renewed’. Just last week, they addressed the fate of a number of Fox Network shows including Empire. Their verdict? Four bears which means ‘likely to be renewed by May 2019’.
Hysterical clickbait stories notwithstanding, there’s just not a valid reason for the Smollett situation to result in the cancellation of Empire. As the quote I posted above suggests there is far more upside in renewing the show than in cancelling the show. In fact, the network will never admit it but they could use the interest in what will happen with the character of Jamal as a hook to get viewers. There have been reports that Fox ‘insiders’ are telling the entertainment media that ‘viewers will have to watch and see how the character of Jamal is resolved’. With that in mind, here are the official SPORTS INSIDER odds on the renewal of Fox TV’s Empire.
FOX TV’S ‘EMPIRE’ RENEWAL BETTING ODDS
WILL FOX TV RENEW ‘EMPIRE’ FOR ANOTHER SEASON?
WHAT WILL HAPPEN WITH THE CHARACTER OF JAMAL ON ‘EMPIRE’ IN SEASON 6?
The role will be recast -150
Jamal will be written out +175
Nothing/Smollett returns +500
None of the above +1000
If ‘Empire’ is not renewed for a sixth season this bet will be graded ‘no action’.
FINAL AVERAGE VIEWERSHIP OF ‘EMPIRE’ SEASON 5
Over 5.1 million -150
Under 5.1 million +130
VIEWERSHIP OF ‘EMPIRE’ SEASON 5 FINALE (APRIL 3, 2019)
Over 5.5 million -120
Under 5.5 million +100
The previous two TV ratings propositions will be graded using data reported at TV By The Numbers.