Interview: Ilene Chaiken, Showrunner Of 'Empire' Empire — a drama about an African-American family, a rare thing on broadcast TV — has had stellar ratings. As Season 2 begins, Ilene Chaiken talks about entertainment value and cultural impact.
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Showrunner Hopes 'Empire' Is 'On The Crest Of A Wave Of Change'

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Showrunner Hopes 'Empire' Is 'On The Crest Of A Wave Of Change'

Showrunner Hopes 'Empire' Is 'On The Crest Of A Wave Of Change'

Showrunner Hopes 'Empire' Is 'On The Crest Of A Wave Of Change'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/441536905/441775234" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

"L-R: (Bottom Row) Bryshere Gray as Hakeem Lyon, Jussie Smollett as Jamal Lyon, Trai Byers as Andre Lyon (Middle Row) Grace Gealey as Anika, Kaitlin Doubleday as Rhonda Lyon (Top Row) Gabourey Sidibe as Becky, Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon, Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon and Ta'Rhonda Jones as Porsha in Empire Season Two." James Dimmock/Courtesy of FOX hide caption

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James Dimmock/Courtesy of FOX

"L-R: (Bottom Row) Bryshere Gray as Hakeem Lyon, Jussie Smollett as Jamal Lyon, Trai Byers as Andre Lyon (Middle Row) Grace Gealey as Anika, Kaitlin Doubleday as Rhonda Lyon (Top Row) Gabourey Sidibe as Becky, Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon, Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon and Ta'Rhonda Jones as Porsha in Empire Season Two."

James Dimmock/Courtesy of FOX

The wildly successful prime-time soap opera Empire is back: Season 2 kicks off next week.

The Season 1 finale brought in 17 million viewers — despite the conventional wisdom that the days of broadcast television drawing in audiences like that are over.

"I don't know whether we've changed the game or the conventional wisdom," showrunner Ilene Chaiken tells NPR's Arun Rath. "... I think that Empire is indicative that if you're telling fresh stories and telling them well and you've found something that taps into a rich cultural vein that there is still a great audience for television."

The show features drug dealer turned record industry mogul Lucious Lyon, and the fight between his ex-wife and three sons for control of the family business.

"I hope that the success of Empire is part of a change in Hollywood," she tells NPR's Arun Rath. "Rather than taking credit for the change, I'd like to think that we're on the crest of a wave of change."

To hear their full conversation, click the audio link above.


Interview Highlights

On what attracted Chaiken to the show

I saw the pilot that Lee Daniels and Danny Strong had made and I wasn't looking to do someone else's show at that time. I was developing my own and it's what I generally prefer to do. But I went and watched the pilot and came out of the room with a completely different point of view. I knew I had seen something. I actually, as I was walking out of the room, got on the phone, called my agent and my manager and said, "I have to do this. Tell me what I need to do to get this job because, I can't tell you exactly why, but the show is a game changer. I just know it is."

On what Chaiken saw in the pilot episode

It just worked. It worked powerfully. It's a drama about an African-American family and that hasn't been on broadcast television. There have been comedies. When I did The L Word, I thought, "The real win here, the real difference is that we've got a drama. Gay characters have been on television and comedies, but starring in a drama is very different because we're asking you to take us seriously."

But I think it was the combination of these characters and the cultural experience that they represent, along with the music and the very high entertainment value that made me feel like this could be a very big hit.

On what makes the creative process for Empire different

This show has the cultural specificity that is really important. It's about African-American experience. That's essential to the success of the show, to the honesty of the show. So that's the most different thing about me running this show. I've never done that before: It's my job to be the steward of that and to make sure that my colleagues bring experience and knowledge and voice to the show.

On getting the right voice for the show

I hire a lot of African-American writers. I listen to Lee [Daniels], I listen to the actors who portray these characters. And I, from a distance sometimes, just make sure that we're always being true to the essence of the show.