Following its debut in the United States in January, TV show Empire certainly made its mark on its home audience. Pulling in close to a season average of 13 million viewers, the hip-hop focused drama exceeded expectations.
Indeed, by the time the first season finished on Fox mid March, 23 million were tuning in, with the New York Times describing the show as both “sizzling” and “pretty perfect.”
Of course, like the vast majority of U.S. productions, home audiences were always going to get the opportunity to enjoy Empire first. However, thanks to the Internet and a network of unofficial online distributors, Empire was soon being exposed to a much wider audience.
Within hours of its premiere January 7, 2015, Empire S01E01 was circulating on torrent and streaming sites, an attractive proposition for potential viewers elsewhere who had heard about the show’s popularity in the United States yet had no legitimate way to get in on the action.
According to stats gathered by TorrentFreak, on average the show was being downloaded more than 250,000 times per episode via BitTorrent, a number that doesn’t include many thousands of additional views on various streaming sites worldwide.
But while distributor 20th Century Fox wasn’t particularly keen on Empire being seen outside the United States (the company sent dozens of complaints to Google for the show to be delisted from search results), Empire star Taraji P Henson sees things quite differently.
“The only way that it [Empire] got over to the UK is because people were streaming it [illegally]. They [UK television companies] wouldn’t have known the show was that important, or that people wanted to see it, if they weren’t streaming it,” Henson told the BBC.
The actress, who plays the role of ‘Cookie’ in the show, echoes the position of Netflix, which notes the popularity of content with pirates and uses that as an indicator of whether it should invest in shows.
“You guys were streaming, and I know it’s a bad thing, but when the material is good people will find it. Thank you. Thank you everybody. People didn’t think it would do well over here,” Henson added.
After its success in the U.S., Empire was picked up by UK TV channel E4. Nick Lee, a buyer for the channel, didn’t reveal whether the show’s piracy ‘successes’ were a factor in snapping up the drama but did note that there was plenty of interest.
“We just think it fits so well on the channel,” he said. “There was huge competition. I think most channels in the UK wanted it.
And after Empire enjoyed its premiere in the UK last night, it became clear why. The show was well received by critics and fans alike.
Downloads of Empire are now at much more modest levels than they were in January but that situation should change when the show’s second season premieres in the United States during the fall. A US-UK simultaneous release will almost certainly be too much to ask.