Shows like Empire, Fresh Off The Boat, and Black-ish have ushered in a new era of racially-diverse broadcast television here in the U.S. and, by and large, American audiences like what they see. According toThe Hollywood Reporter, though, foreign audiences aren't responding as well to more melanin-rich American programming.
"These shows are a reflection of our society," Fox's international TV head Marion Edwards told THR. "But [they are] not a reflection of all societies."
Take Empire, for example. Fox, which produces Empire here in the U.S., entered into a number of distribution agreements with various networks across the globe, pushing the musically-driven drama into markets in the UK, Australia, and China. While Empire is still airing in time slots comparable to the one it has here in the U.S., its numbers abroad haven't been nearly as consistently impressive.
"Empire launched with 552k making it E4’s biggest launch for a new title this year," the UK television network bragged in 2015 when it first began airing the show, explaining that it managed to secure nearly 9% of the highly-coveted demographic of people between the ages of 16-34.
According toTHR, though, Empire averaged a much lower 3% share of that same target demographic over the course of the rest of the first season and 2.2% during the second.
"Having a diverse cast creates another hurdle for U.S. series trying to break through; it would be foolish not to recognize that," Edwards reasoned. "We are telling our units that they need to be aware that by creating too much diversity in the leads in their show means problems having their shows translating to the international market."
While Empire's anemic ratings aren't unique to the UK, that particular market is worth unpacking specifically because of how it rolled the program out. Empire's launch was ridiculed by many viewers for the inordinate amount of advertisements that interrupted the show.
Fed up with the show's odd E4 presentation, many fans fell back into old habits and opted watching Empire the way that they originally did before it made its way overseas: by illegally streaming it. The number of people that had been streaming Empire was so large that Taraji P. Henson made a point of thanking fans for doing it, stating that their demand is ultimately what got Empire broader distribution.
It stands to reason that between having originally consumed the show online and then being met with a sub-par viewing experience via broadcast, that UK television viewers might not have actually given up on Empire so much as they chose to watch it in a way that made more sense for them.
Other wildly popular, racially-progressive shows like Modern Family have managed to successfully jump across the pond, but they tend to suffer from the same fate. Back in 2010, Modern Family hit an all-time ratings high on the UK station Sky1, capturing some 500,000 viewers. Four years later, however, Modern Family's numbers had slipped to 407,000 viewers facing competition from shows like Game of Thrones.
There's no real way to tell whether or not foreign audiences' feelings towards American stories featuring people of color are ultimately to blame. Back in 2012, though, The Independent put forth a compelling theory as to why Modern Family never really reached the fever pitch it did in the U.S. in the UK. Put simply: digital streaming (both legal and illegal) were fundamentally changing the way that people watched TV.
"Modern Family airs in an era where you can digitally record or download just about any show at any time," the paper argued. "It might lead to greater choice but it's harder for a show to make a wide impact."
Streaming services like Netflix are eating into traditional media's pockets left and right. Just because people aren't watching Empire on set schedules on a weekly basis doesn't mean that they aren't Cookie-binging on their own time.