How ‘Scandal’ became the biggest drama on television

Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn in ABC's 'Scandal.'

Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn in ABC's 'Scandal.'

In eight months, Shonda Rhimes broke up the First Family, unleashed a mole into the executive branch of the White House, suppressed a ballot-rigging debacle, killed innocent people, and consequently, made Scandal the top-rated drama on network television.

While season one of ABC’s Thursday night political thriller earned a modest critical response, round two hit record-highs, even outscoring American Idol in its recent week’s airing. A large part of the show’s new-found success has been the support of a passionate online community, and more specifically, the juggernaut that has become “black Twitter.” Tweets each week keep Scandal trending for days, and it doesn’t hurt that Rhimes and her cast are leading the call to action.

Lesson learned? If you tweet it, they will come.

“Deep down, what social media did for Scandal really isn’t any different than what social media does for a new business or one that’s off the beaten path,” Scott Kleinberg, Social Media Editor for the Chicago Tribune, tells theGrio. “So many people are passionate about it – they love the premise, the story, and they love the fact that Shonda Rhimes is behind it. So, one friend talks to another, but in this case friendships are formed in all that chatter. It causes people to become curious and check it out. And then they want to check out the conversation. And then they can’t get enough.”

“Gladiators” unite through hashtag discussions

Not only does Scandal’s storyline lend itself to deliberation, the show has purposely produced a social environment conducive to ongoing discussions. Clever hashtags are created to streamline conversations. The entire cast live-tweets with fans, known as “gladiators.” Even customized commercials are broadcast to advertise details of the Twitter party.

The results of these concerted efforts are evident in the figures alone. Scandal’s social media campaigns have generated more than 2,200 tweets a minute and five worldwide trending topics, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The latest ratings for the soap-style show are up by 23 percent, with 8.9 million viewers tuning into its penultimate airing.

Rhimes told THR they were willing to do “whatever it takes to make this show work,” and judging by the results, they accomplished a lot. Even church pastors are getting in on the hashtag action, attempting to preach their sermons in 140 characters or less around the immoral incident of the hour.

“It’s a connected community,” Kleinberg points out. “Though there are so many people tweeting, never does it feel like the tweets are scattered. They all seem connected by fans – it’s like a giant party. The show is exciting in its own right with a storyline that continues from week to week. So in between episodes, these tweeting fans are building excitement toward next week. The social portion never really stops.”

For some viewers, it can be frustrating, especially if they can’t catch the episode in real time. Suffice it to say, even your best tweets won’t provide spoiler warnings.

Myles McNutt, TV Critic for Cultural Learnings/The A.V. Club, suggests the Scandal digital strategy makes it necessary to watch the show live, thus, it inherently boosts ratings.

“ABC’s bullish social media campaigning has been one of the biggest success stories of the past year in the TV industry, based both on the active participation of the show’s stars, and ABC’s use of that involvement to turn each week’s episode into an event,” he notes. “In a culture where live viewing is becoming less and less common, as DVR use and online streaming rise in popularity, Scandal‘s #WhoShotFitz or #WhatTheHuck are ways to turn not watching Scandal live into a risk for those who don’t want to be spoiled.”

Tapping into the power of “Black Twitter”

Along with shrewd engagement tactics, Scandal has benefited largely from the participation of its African-American audience, a demographic shown to be predominant online.

According to TechCrunch, almost twice as many African-Americans use Twitter as whites, and a significant chunk of those users have become the backbone of Scandal’s social sphere.

As so-called “Black Twitter” becomes more influential, other networks are taking note.

“We’ve seen all the Scandal wannabes come out, and they’ve all sucked,” remarks Mary Pryor, a social media strategist and content producer who has actively guided the Scandal Twiterrati. “Now you have people that want to get these black eyeballs…It says a lot that African-Americans over-index on Twitter. It says a lot that African-Americans and Latinos are the leading ethno [sic] groups on Instagram. Network television wants to be able to grasp that fire.”

Equally significant is the fact that Scandal can’t necessarily be categorized as a “black show.” Kerry Washington plays a strong black lead, but a majority of the cast is not African-American, nor do issues of race typically arise in the storyline.

The lack of such an angle coupled with the fact Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, carries on a steamy love affair with the white U.S. president has prompted some to criticize Rhimes for missing an opportunity to discuss racial dynamics.

Not until last night’s finale did the president ever address his interracial affair when he manipulated it as a ploy to seamlessly divorce the first lady (masterminded, of course, by Pope).