Fox chiefs give second season to ‘Empire,’ address star’s troubled past

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PASADENA, Calif. — Fox wasted no time ordering up more of its midseason drama, “Empire.”

Only two episodes in, the breakout hit has been picked up for a second season, the network announced at the TV critics’ press tour Saturday, when star Terrence Howard’s troubled past became a topic of conversation.

Filmed in Chicago but set in New York, the hip-hop-focused family drama stars Chicago-born Howard (“The Butler”) and Taraji P. Henson (“Person of Interest”). It debuted to impressive numbers, beating its lead-in “American Idol” in advertiser-coveted young adults. The January premiere tied Viola Davis’ “How To Get Away with Murder” as the biggest new series bow of the 2014-15 season, netting a 3.8 rating among 18-to-49-year-olds. An average of 9.9 million viewers watched overall.

The second episode fared even better, notching a 4.0 rating.

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“Being able to bring that many people to the opening of the show was so exciting, and that it grew in the second week was, honestly, beyond our expectation,” said Fox co-chair and co-CEO Dana Walden, who, along with Gary Newman, took over the top entertainment post at the fourth-place network last year.

Walden and Newman are new to the job, but they helped shepherd the series with Lee Daniels and Danny Strong (“The Butler”) at 20th Century Fox Television when both worked on the studio-side of things.

The celebratory tone turned serious when a reporter asked about the casting of Howard, who plays thug-turned-music mogul Lucious Lyon. He’s a character prone to violence — something Howard has been accused of in real life. Howard also has a role in Fox’s upcoming M. Night Shyamalan drama “Wayward Pines,” debuting this summer.

Reporter: He’s had contentious relationships with exes. He has had two restraining orders. He’s been accused of domestic violence and violence toward women that he didn’t even know. When you’re doing casting, does this come up as part of the conversation?

Walden: I want to start by saying that we’ve been working with Terrence now for just about a year, and it’s been a fantastic experience. He’s a leader among that cast. He’s so professional. He’s been so hardworking and he’s just been a great partner to us. So our experience with Terrence has been excellent. We cast Terrence because our executive producers, Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, and Brian Grazer, felt that he was the best actor for that particular role. Our experience with him at that point was being fans of the films he’s done in the past and it seemed like a little bit of a no-brainer. So with Terrence, we really didn’t become aware of any of the situation you’re talking about until December. It wasn’t part of the conversation when we cast him.

Reporter: You weren’t aware, as in you don’t do even minimal Google checks on people or, I mean, it’s been reported pretty widely for much longer than since December.

Walden: I can only tell you that that was when we were made aware of it. And the allegations at this point, we do know about them, but we’ve also had now a good long chunk of time. Terrence was also on “Wayward Pines.” The network executives who interacted with him had nothing but a great experience. So, no, it just didn’t come into the conversation.

NBC chief Bob Greenblatt found himself in a similar position Friday when TV critics repeatedly brought up Bill Cosby, who’d been developing a comedy with the network until the disgraced star’s reputation collapsed under the weight of multiple rape allegations.

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“Empire’s” first season consists of a dozen episodes. The show airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on WFLD-Channel 32.

Fox also announced renewals for freshman series “Gotham” and cop comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

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