“Empire” is the number one show on broadcast television, but the hip-hop hit declined in ratings during its second season, after breaking records in its debut season, hitting an all-time overnight high of nearly 18 million viewers. Many fans and critics attributed the lower numbers to some outlandish storylines, such as digging up a dead body. When the drama returns with the back-half of its second season on March 30, co-creator Lee Daniels promises “Empire” goes back to its roots.
“What happened is that it was growing pains,” Daniels said Friday night at PaleyFest, held at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, admitting that the show went a bit to the “left.” He added, “I think it would have happened to any show, and though we still remained number one, we were learning … I think it’s just a process. It’s trial and error. At the end of the day, well, we came back. How do you make greatness without testing it?”
Asked by moderator Kevin Frazier when the “Empire” team knew the show was a hit, exec producer Brian Grazer quipped, “Well, we certainly didn’t know it when a bunch of networks turned us down.”
Then asked, “What was it like when the show exploded?” cast member Bryshere Gray cracked, “You know, I stopped eating ramen noodles!”
Sitting in front of a packed house, Daniels expressed his gratitude to the millions of fans watching the show.
“When I say that it is an honor to see people of color through not only the homes of America, but to Brazil and to Spain and to Italy, and they’re getting a sneak peek into what it’s like to be in our world, and not only that it’s part of the African-American experience, but that I have, as my partners, white people that are able to tell the story in an universal way, words can’t describe my happiness for all of us and the humility that we all have,” Daniels said. Sitting next to Grazer, he continued, “Brian and I do movies so we didn’t know the impact of television.”
As with any pop culture phenomenon, explosive success comes with a price. In “Empire’s” case, the show recently battled reports of one of its stars Trai Byers leaving the show.
“You know when I knew we made it?” Daniels began. “When I picked up Page Six and saw that Trai Byers was leaving the show. I said, ‘Boy we are a hit!’ Because they are taking about us and there are rumors and this is great. This is when you know. The haters are gonna hate.”
With a laugh, leading man Terrence Howard jumped in, joking, “I begged Trai to please stay on the show!”
Asked point blank if he is leaving the show, Byers exclaimed: “No!”
Byers then elaborated, saying, “There’s not a stich of truth to it, but it shows the love and popularity to the show … Again, it’s not true, but it opens the ground to really talk about how media uses their power to perpetuate negativity built on lies versus positivity which is built on truth. There are a lot of people on this people who do great things that aren’t publicized … The truth has to ring louder than the lies.”
Daniels summed up the conversation: “Here’s the bottom line,” he said to a cheering crowd. “We are where we are and ‘aint nobody going to take us down. We are tight, and the haters are gonna hate!”
Speaking of haters, when asked by an audience member about the industry’s diversity crisis, highlighted by this year’s Oscar nominees, Daniels said, “I don’t have time for racism. Am I delusional to say there is racism in America? Look at f–ing Donald Trump.”