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Ilene Chaiken on what it's like running the hit show 'Empire'

The Lyon family comes together to record a legacy album in the
The Lyon family comes together to record a legacy album in the "The Lyon's Roar" episode of "Empire."
Chuck Hodes/FOX

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The Fox show “Empire” follows hip hop mogul Lucious Lyon and his family’s rise in the music industry. And if you’re one of the very few who hasn’t seen the show, it’s basically a soap opera in which everyone is backstabbing each other, but looking extremely fashionable doing it.

Empire trailer

The show, created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, has become a huge hit for Fox. The season one finale attracted more than 17 million viewers and became one of the most watched television shows of this year.

Reviewers and fans have praised the show for tackling issues of race, gender and sexuality on a massive platform like primetime TV, but the show has also received some backlash for its subject matter as well.

“Empire” is now in its second season. Show-runner Ilene Chaiken — who previously created and directed “The L Word” on Showtime — talks with The Frame's John Horn about what exactly a show-runner does, having that role in a heavily male dominated industry and the beef that rapper 50 Cent has with "Empire." 


If people are unfamiliar with the business of making television, what do you think they would be most surprised by in terms of what a show-runner actually does?

I think they would be most surprised by how many pies a show-runner has her hand in. We are responsible for the stories. That means conceiving of the stories and getting the scripts written, which is a lengthy and painstaking process. On a show like "Empire," there's also the music. 

There's meeting with the music teams, making sure that we're getting the music produced that we need in the show, making sure that it's getting done in a timely way because all of the music on the show is original, which means we have to get out ahead of it. We have to say, In this episode, these three artists are going to be performing. This is what the song is gonna be about or the role it's going to play in our storytelling.

Then there's the responsibility of hiring the directors, making sure that each director — many of whom are guests on the show who don't know the show the way that we do — really understand what we do. The numerous meetings throughout the week that have to do with production ... I'm talking fast because there's so much involved that you almost have to talk fast or we would be doing a three-week interview. 

Empire Music

How much, as a woman, has the industry changed in terms of your ability to have positions of authority and to become show-runners? 

A lot and not nearly enough. 

Say more about that. 

I don't know what the statistics are, but I know that the statistics in our business overall are still poor. With regard to representation of women — both in front of and behind the cameras — [there are] still very few women show-runners, relatively speaking, and even fewer creators of shows. Probably the number of women on writing staffs is shamefully poor. 

I make an effort to always have a lot of women and a lot of people of color on any project that I work on. It's even harder to find women directors to direct episodes of television. There are relatively few and it's an incredible uphill battle because you then have to defy all kinds of rules because you have to say, I'm going to break a new director. I'm going to hire somebody who hasn't done it before. And that's scary to the studios and networks for understandable reasons, because they need people who can deliver shows, who are going to do work, who are going to come on time. So you have to really be willing to advocate in order to change the status quo. 

"Empire" sparks a huge conversation on social media. Are you guys aware of those conversations and do they affect the way that you approach and talk about the show? Even very recently, the rapper 50 Cent mocked the show, saying that the decline in ratings was because of all the "gay stuff" on the show. 

We're very aware of the conversation on social media. All the writers live-Tweet every week, many of the cast do as well, and we love it. We relish the conversation, both the good and the bad, the outrageous, the outraged. That's what makes it fun and it's what lets you know that you're doing something that actually is having an affect. 

So the fact that 50 Cent says what he says is positive, or do you think it's actually bad? 

I don't think it's either. I think 50 Cent is welcome to say whatever he wants and whatever he thinks, and we just take it all in. 

“Empire” airs Wednesday nights on Fox.

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