'Empire' Season Premiere Proves Online Watch Parties Are Back

The cast of Fox's hit show, "Empire," from L to R: Trai Byers, Taraji P. Henson, Jussie Smollett, Bryshere Gray and Terrence Howard.
The cast of Fox's hit show, "Empire," from L to R: Trai Byers, Taraji P. Henson, Jussie Smollett, Bryshere Gray and Terrence Howard.

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By Andrea King Collier

After what seemed to be an endless summer hiatus, this week millions of African American television viewers are picking up the remote control and their smartphones to watch their favorite TV shows with a running commentary firing up the Twitterverse.

The shows are great fun and made better by the fact that you get to watch them with hundreds, or thousands of your closest social media friends. Think of them as events—the new book clubs on steroids.

Wednesday night kicked off the social media hashtag-fest with the long anticipated season premiere of Empire. Lee Daniels’ hit show on FOX easily won the night, taking in it’s second highest ratings next to the season finale. According to Nielsen, there were 16.02 million viewers, dwarfing the next highest show, Survivor which had 9.61 million viewers.

Now that Empire’s premiere has passed, the social media watchers are taking a breath and getting ready for Thursday night’s twisty trifecta known as TGIT: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder (known to most fans in acronym form "HTGAWM").

According to the folks at Twitter, African Americans make up 14 percent of the population but make up 25 percent of all U.S. Twitter users. And many of them are tuned in and tweeting.

Five years ago, you liked a show and you might call your girls and watch it together. Now, not only is the notion of “show groups” a new way of consuming media, it has required that media become a two way street of engagement with us.

According to a recent report on African American consumers from Nielsen, African American viewers on average put in 51 minutes of television watching time weekly, which is 42 percent higher than the total population.

Viewers equal ad dollars for networks, and build audience for producers. It also gives audiences more power than ever before. The social media faithful can make or break a show. This explains why producers like Shonda Rhimes and cast members get so intimately involved in these shows on Twitter and Facebook the night of the show.

The numbers are staggering. It’s estimated that the two-hour season one finale of Empire drew 2.4 million tweets, with 51,000 tweets sent in the final minute alone. It brought in the highest numbers since 2011, when tracking of tweeted shows began. Nielsen reports that those tweets were seen by nearly 6 million US. Twitter television viewers. Scandal averaged nearly 300,000 tweets per episode.


Not all new or existing shows will find their tribes on social media. In comparison to the two other Rhimes shows, Grey’s—which has been a television staple for 12 seasons now—still does well in the ratings in all demographics but doesn’t have the must see, viral social media reach among African Americans that it does among other audiences.

Shows like Empire and Scandal are good television because the writers and producers are very aware that they need to have all the bells and whistles, crazy one-liners and tight dialogue that make for viral gold. Did she really just do that? Did he say that? Did that really happen?

Newly minted Emmy winner Viola Davis broke the internet last season when she wiped off the makeup and pulled off the wig. My comment on social media when it happened—after I picked myself up off the floor? Ok Viola, go get your Emmy, Girl.

Empire’s “Cookie”, played by Taraji P. Henson is also constantly giving us viral life. I dare say she has some of the best one-liners and moves on all of television. I call these the “head snap back” moments. And the social “show groups” live for them.

I like my little Facebook group to feel like a salon of sorts. We all have our wine, maybe even in our PJs. And we are all chatting it up, but the comfort of our own homes.

But some groups do it big. Tamarra Allen 47, of Atlanta is one of the driving forces behind the Facebook group Empire (Fox Show) Taraji P Henson & Terrence Howard, which has over 67,000 members. I can’t imagine 67,000 people talking to me at the same time but they make it work, and their numbers keep growing.

Allen says the experience has led audiences to search out the social in other shows like Tyler Perry’s The Haves and Have Nots. Power could have that impact too, but its audience may be more limited, since it airs on Starz cable network.

Allen thinks Empire gave Black Twitter and the Facebook hive “something that they were looking for as people got tired of Scandal.”

African Americans make up 14 percent of the population but make up 25 percent of all U.S. Twitter users.

For me, and my little group there was no either or—but both/and. Although last season there were a lot of cricket moments as Scandal gave us weeks of Olivia Pope being taken hostage, there were no nodding-off moments in Empire.

These social media chat offs also make big winners and losers. The big winner of the night, as expected was "Cookie", Taraji P. Henson’s character on the show.

Wednesday night's big loser, according to a very active Facebook and Twitter?

Chris Rock as a ridiculously unbelievable prison bad guy. There is a lot to be said about his minutes long cameo appearance, and the social media watching groups probably said all of it. Poor Chris. (Spoiler alert, the best thing that could have happened to him and his career was getting killed off.)

Fan favorites Scandal and HTGAWM both premier tonight.