Jussie Smollett saga doesn’t boost “Empire” numbers


Show now on fence for renewal; Smollett pleads not guilty in alleged staged attack

As predicted on this site recently, the tabloid saga involving Empire’s Jussie Smollett did not provide a significant boost for the show. In fact, it may have hurt it.

According to Nielsen overnight ratings in the adult 18-49 demo, Empire started the second half of its season with a 1.3 rating and 6 share, down 13 percent from its fall finale in December and off 35 percent from a year ago.

In fact, the numbers were near a record low for the program, only ahead of an original episode airing on Oct.31 on Halloween.

Empire fell behind Survivor, who won the time period with a 1.5 demo rating, but beat ABC’s Goldbergs and Schooled, with a 1.1 and 1.0, respectively. CW drama Riverdale, whose Luke Perry died last week, came in with a 0.3.

Keep in mind these numbers are preliminary; final numbers are to be released sometime on Thursday, but they are not expected to fluctuate much. Also keep in mind the live-plus-three day and seven-day numbers have yet to be tabulated, accounting for DVR use. Among households in the metered-market overnights, Empire did a  3.7/6.

But anyway you cut it, the numbers are disappointing for Fox given all the hype surrounding Jussie Smollett and his legal troubles. Back in January, Smollett claimed to have been attacked by two white Trump supporters in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood on January 21. The alleged attack received a huge amount of national attention with local and national news coverage. But Smollett’s story started to unravel, and a combative interview on Good Morning America with Robin Roberts did not help matters.

On Thursday, Smollett pleaded not guilty to sixteen counts related to his staged hate crime attack in a Cook County courtroom.

Despite the controversy, there was a significant storyline featuring Smollett’s character Jamal in Wednesday night show, featuring a breakup with his lover and performing in front of a crowd at a high school. With Smollett’s alleged crime in the background, knowing what happened in real-life casts a huge pall over the fictional storylines and makes it impossible to enjoy the show.

Smollett has already been removed from promotional materials from Empire and was dropped from the last two episodes of the season. Whether he’ll return to the show heavily depends on the outcome of his legal troubles.

Or if there is a show to return to. The next few weeks will be critical for Empire, whose ratings have been declining for years as Disney prepares to take over 20th Century Fox Television, Empire’s production studio. Soon to be separate from its namesake studio, Fox has not decided if it would renew the show for a sixth season. But last night’s weak ratings start doesn’t bode well for its future.