For the last decade, the fall 2004 launch of Desperate Housewives has been the gold standard when measuring just how huge a new broadcast series can be out of the gate. Many a TV analyst has lamented that another such launch is not possible in the TV world of today. There have certainly been entire seasons when the TV audience has seemed almost unreachable with new series.
After a huge start and improbable growth in weeks two and three, it's clear that Fox's Empire is the most impressive new scripted launch since Housewives. What's not yet clear is whether it could even surpass the first season of Housewives. Adjusting for the average entertainment original of each season, the early returns are shockingly promising on that front.
For the 2014-15 season, this uses the 1.68 league average that is projected for the end of the season based on the current year-to-year rate. The projected league average has been within a couple hundredths of that number for most of the season.
The premieres were pretty close: Empire's 3.8 (226 A18-49+) vs. Desperate Housewives' 8.9 (219 Plus). And it's worth noting that Empire had a noticeably better lead-in from American Idol (191) than Housewives did from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (145). The point that really separated the two was the second week, when Housewives took a 3% drop to 8.6 (212) while Empire grew 5% to 4.0 (238). Then, Empire amazingly managed to mimic the roughly 10% week three growth seen from Housewives, keeping Empire's lead quite healthy (262 to 234).
It's a real testament to Housewives that nothing in ten years has been anywhere close to this kind of track, and it's a real testament to Empire that it's actually soundly beating that Housewives standard in the first three weeks, at least relative to the rest of TV at the time.
But another testament to Housewives: to stay on this track, Empire still has a lot of work to do. Housewives didn't just have the crazy jump in week three; it also grew in weeks four and five, and then had two more crazy jumps in weeks six and eight.
That week six jump took Housewives from 9.8 (241) to 11.1 (273). Surpassing that 273 for Empire would require a 4.6 rating. Since Empire has such a head start on Housewives, that doesn't seem like a massive task. Could even happen next week, when it will face less competition than ever (with NBC's Law and Order: SVU going into repeats and ABC still in repeats).
To surpass where Housewives went in week eight (a 307 Plus) would take a 5.2 rating from Empire, which is nearly twenty percent more above where the show rated in week three. Again, almost nothing seems impossible with the way this has gone, but that would really be something to behold.
The jump in week eight wasn't sustainable; Housewives had a couple oddly low points to end the fall of 2004, then returned in January 2005 and settled at about the 11.0ish or 270ish week six level for most of the rest of the season. Not pictured here was the truly epic 13.4 season one finale, good for a 330 Plus. Empire would need a whooping 5.6 rating to get past that by today's standards.
From an average standpoint, the marks for Empire to beat are a 253 over the first 13 episodes (a 4.25 today) and a 262 over the full first season (a 4.40 today).
So that's the story using A18-49+. Whether these numbers are truly apples-to-apples (in other words, whether Empire is legitimately more impressive than Desperate Housewives) is another discussion entirely. It's always worried me a bit that a show could "cheat" the rules of Plus if it finds a way to become DVR-proof the way sports are. Empire had a smaller Live+3 build (+39%) than other big premieres like How to Get Away with Murder (+52%) and Gotham (+56%). So maybe it benefits somewhat, but it doesn't seem that egregious.