‘Scandal’ vs. ‘American Idol’: Who will top the ratings?

Will it be a female sing-off or a government spy that captivates the attention of America’s eyes tonight?

The season finales of Fox’s American Idol and ABC’s Scandal are both expected to secure high viewership ratings in their concluding episodes. If trend forecasts prove accurate however, Shonda Rhimes’ political thriller could beat out the country’s most popular reality series in a finish no one would have predicted at this time last year.

Reports Zap2It.com, last week’s penultimate episode of Scandal out-delivered American Idol the same night in ratings shares of the key demographic: adults aged 18-49.

In all likelihood, team Olivia Pope will win again.

“That’s amazing considering just a year ago, or the last ten years, American Idol has been by far the biggest show on any night it was aired,” Rick Kissell, a ratings reporter for Variety, tells theGrio. “Last week’s Scandal was a series high. It’s had a nice jump from week to week, but it’s definitely the hotter show now.”

The numbers don’t lie

The rise of Scandal seems to track the decline of American Idol like two divergent lines. The musical competition series hit record lows throughout the season while Scandal has dominated its key demographic. Audience buzz and social media made ABC’s hit one of the top dramas on television, despite being a critical bust in its first season.

On top of that, Deadline reports American Idol marked “an all-time low for any regularly scheduled Idol in the Fox series’ 12 seasons” during the first night of May Sweeps. That same day, Scandal, returning after a three-week hiatus, was the only show of the night to see a boost.

“I definitely think Scandal’s finale will be up from last week,” Kissell predicts. “I’m not sure how much bigger American Idol’s finale will be – usually they see a pretty nice jump from their last performance show to the finale – but I don’t really sense it this time. It doesn’t seem like there’s as big a pool of viewers.”

One thing’s clear, wandering minds have wholeheartedly turned their attention to the steamy cliffhangers of Rhimes’ White House drama in its second round. Not only has Scandal resonated with viewers in traditional formats, it has also become a social media sensation, tapping into the spirit of instant and constant communication to enhance engagement throughout each episode.

In addition to high TV ratings, the political thriller ranked as Thursday’s top social broadcast series during primetime, with an 86 percent advantage over runner-up American Idol in number of tweets. The penultimate episode of Scandal was ABC’s “most social show” this season with 3.4 million total tweets.

Scandal, I think, is definitely a Twitter beneficiary,” Kissell observes. “Their cast does a lot of tweeting on their own, and [Rhimes] does some too. It’s actually one of the rare shows these days, I mean it does show gains in DVD playback, but it’s a big Thursday night show. People watch that show on Thursday because they know everybody else of their friends is watching it that night too, unlike other shows. That’s a big sign it’s popular because people want to watch it right when it comes out.”

If there’s a tweet, there’s a way: ‘Scandal’ overcomes initial disappointment

With its complicated romantic affairs, mysterious character arches, and ongoing plot twists, Scandal manages to draw intrigue every week driving audiences to tweet their thoughts and uncertainties.

If there’s a way to get to the bottom of it, there’s a hashtag for it. If there’s not, there’s a hashtag for the perplexity. Look up #AskScandal, #FreeHuck, #Gladiators, and #WhoShotFitz for more information.

Vulture Magazine tweeted Tuesday from ABC’s upfront event, “#Scandal ratings are up 24%. Scandal TWEETS are up 529%. #upfront.”

Considering the reviews it received during its first season, the positive feedback is significant.

“To be perfectly honest, after watching four episodes of Scandal, I’m not 100 percent clear on what it is that Olivia and her team (most of them fellow lawyers who don’t practice law) do, nor on exactly what the show is,” critic Alan Sepinwall wrote last April on HitFlix.com.

Critic Brian Lowry wrote for Variety last March, “As usual, Rhimes’ workplace characters talk very fast, but the manic visual style can’t obscure a series flawed on most every level.”

This season, on the other hand, reviews read more like Miranda Wicker’s recent post for TVFanatic.com.

Scandal is really heating up leading into the final two episodes of the season, and I’m not just talking about those closing scenes,” she commented. “This episode was so intense I barely have any notes. From Olivia and Fitz to the team’s search for Charlie, I was completely riveted.”

In a brush with irony, the timing of Scandal’s finale also couldn’t be more appropriate. America’s favorite White House fixer-upper and her team of recruits could additionally benefit from the real life debacles plaguing Washington at the moment, bringing added attention to the show and its trending topics.

Buzzfeed broke it down in a list Wednesday, dubbed “If This Week Were An Episode Of Scandal.”

“Huck would be hacking into both the Justice Department and Associated Press databases,” writer Hillary Reinsberg jokes. “Jake probably would have been the guy who pulled the phone records for the DOJ. Meanwhile, James would have been the one to break the IRS story.”

The falloff of ‘American Idol’

Conversely, American Idol has progressively dipped this year, and producers have mostly been explaining themselves. Longtime host Randy Jackson officially announced he would be leaving the show after the season’s end, and the L.A. Times reported Wednesday that Nicki Minaj is believed to be out too.

On Monday, Entertainment Weekly writer James Hibberd tweeted, “Fox partly blames ‘American Idol’ decline on format tweaks… and promises more format tweaks!”

The Hollywood Reporter remarked, “@RedOne_Official, .@HaleyReinhart on How to Save ‘American Idol’: Bring Back .@JLo.”

And the winner is….

The negative talk couldn’t be helpful for tonight’s concluding episode of American Idol, nor does Kissell believe it will stir up as much online banter as its scandalous competitor.

“As far as the [American Idol] finale, I’ve never understood why [people watched],” Kissell remarks. “They basically already have the results in an envelope. Tonight’s 127 minutes is just to open the envelope. I don’t understand why anybody would be talking about it until it ends at 10:07. So that’s one thing. And Scandal is just kind of a rare animal. It’s unpredictable. People say it has a crazy element to it, you never know what’s going to happen.”

He adds, “I would think we’re going to see more of these kinds of shows, but Scandal is just the best example right now…It was a big jump from its first season to its second season, so if I’m one of those shows that was just renewed for a second season, and I’m on the fence struggling, maybe you do look at social media, and say what can we do to make this a viral event.”

Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @courtgarcia