During ABC's winter TV preview day in January, the Scandal cast should have been celebrating: The ratings have grown exponentially from Season 1 and the series was name dropped no less than nine times by ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee during his executive session. Instead of raising a glass at the after party, however, the cast is racing to get home. It is Thursday night, after all, and they need to live-tweet the West Coast airing of the political fixer drama. That's how dedicated they are to the fans.
Their live-tweeting parties — where the cast interacts with the fans online during both airings using the hashtag #AskScandal — seem to have paid off. In its second season, Scandal has grown 19 percent with young adults, averaging 9.2 million viewers and a 3.1 in the 18-to-49 demographic, nipping at the heels of its lead-in, Shonda Rhimes' other Thursday night drama — and an ABC stalwart in its ninth season — Grey's Anatomy. And while it's hard to quantify exactly how, if at all, Twitter trends have a direct correlation to increasing ratings, it's hard to ignore the fact that on Thursday nights, Scandal is dominating in both areas.
"I like to think it's having an impact," Rhimes says of the weekly Twitter frenzy for the show, which stars Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, the head of a crisis management firm in Washington, D.C. — where she also is carrying on a longtime affair with the President of the United States (Tony Goldwyn). Rhimes' sentiments are quite an understatement. During last week's episode alone, Scandal generated roughly 197,000 tweets, making it the No. 1 most talked about show on Twitter that day. The season total for tweets is close to a whopping 2.07 million.
"While the tools don't currently exist to 100 percent correlate social media activity to ratings, our first major social media push when the President was shot led to the first major uptick in the demo ratings," says Marla Provencio, the chief marketing officer and executive vice president of ABC Entertainment Group. "Since then, as the social media activity has increased, we have seen a steady increase in the ratings. There is no question that the social media push has brought in new viewers and contributed to making this show appointment television."
The live-tweeting parties certainly make fans want to watch episodes live so they can join in on the conversation — or not be spoiled by it. "It also helps that if you turn on your Twitter, and everybody is tweeting about Scandal and it's in the top 5 trending topics, you think to yourself, 'Man, I gotta check that show out!' That's really helped," Rhimes says. Another understatement. Oprah Winfrey learned about the show via Twitter and proceeded to feature the ABC drama on Oprah's Next Chapter in December, which opened up the world of Scandal to even more viewers.
Thanks are due, in part, to Washington, who suggested to Rhimes that the cast join Twitter, which they took as a mandate without realizing their fellow castmember was behind it. But it's definitely not something they regret as it has helped boost the profile of the show. "Twitter is the 21st century's worldwide water cooler," Josh Malina, who plays a white hat-wearing former U.S. attorney, says. "This is where folks come to buzz. And the more they're buzzing about Scandal, the more new viewers we're going to snag."
"It's been an undeniable force," Darby Stanchfield, who plays one of Olivia Pope & Associates' so-called Gladiators, adds. "This grass roots type of advertisement is so much more powerful because the fans are discovering this show for themselves and through their peers."
Thursday nights have become a ritual of sorts, with the cast live-tweeting from planes, at home and even from set when they're filming. Sometimes they'll get together days beforehand for viewing parties over Sunday brunch so they can plan tweets ahead of time. "It's kind of amazing because it's a testament to how much we appreciate our fans and how much we value the privilege of getting to share this ride with them and because of them," Washington says.
That direct connection goes both ways, making fans feel like they're part of a community. "Fans feel a certain ownership of the show," Rhimes says. "If you feel like you can get on Twitter and talk about it while it's airing, it makes them feel like they're a part of things. The more they feel they're a part of things, the more invested they're going to be in the show and that's important."
Part of that connection comes in creating trending hashtags tailor-made for each episode that pertain to major moments on the show, including #WhoIsQuinn #WhatTheHuck and #WhoShotFitz. "Shonda Rhimes has always been a tremendous storyteller and the show she has produced lends itself to people needing to talk about everything they are watching," Provencio says. "The response on social media has been the perfect story of a fantastic show, a motivated cast, and a strategic marketing plan which we are thrilled to see working."
New castmember Scott Foley certainly felt the power of Twitter when his name began trending two weeks ago. He wasn't even in that episode, but only appeared in the promo afterward. "I was on set and Kerry looked at me and said, 'Oh my god, Scott Foley is trending!' and I had no idea what the hell that meant," Foley, who plays mystery man Jake Ballard, says. Still, he joined the rest of the cast last week in live-tweeting his debut episode. "I wasn't prepared personally for the barrage of comments from fans. I was overwhelmed. It's a new way of watching TV and being a fan."
The cast believes the show wouldn't be around today if it weren't for the devoted fans, which are dubbed Gladiators on Twitter. "These days, the competition for eyeballs at any given moment is brutal," Malina says. "Live-tweeting is our cast's way of saying thanks to our audience. Thanks for choosing us out of all your options. We appreciate you. We dig how into the show you are. We are interested in your reactions, and we want to answer your questions."
Scandal airs Thursdays at 10/9c on ABC.
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