Kerry Washington stars as Olivia Pope in ABC's "Scandal." (Richard Cartwright, ABC )
ABC's "Scandal" revolves around a beautiful, law-breaking Washington power-fixer with killer instincts and a matching wardrobe. She's madly in love with the very flawed president of the United States, who, among other things, recently murdered a Supreme Court justice. And they're the good guys.
This is the show that Twitter built.
Premiering midseason last year to tepid reviews (including mine) and low ratings, "Scandal," ABC's drama about crisis manager Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and her love affair with President Fitzgerald "Fitz" Grant (Tony Goldwyn), now approaches its second season finale as a bona fide hit — the show's many and vocal fans call themselves "gladiators" because that is what Olivia calls her team. Some of this success springs from our eternal fascination with the dark side of D.C. and the simple delight many feel about a fast-paced drama starring a strong black female character.
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But the essential ingredient is Shonda Rhimes. The creator of three successful shows, Rhimes has a sorcerer's ability to combine suspense with sentiment, soap with cynicism.
More important, the woman can work social media.
She regularly sends her close to 350,000 followers mash-notes of fan appreciation ("Gladiators: Scandal would not have the opportunity to be on magazine covers without all of you watching. Thank you for making it happen!"), personal professional insight ("Here comes my favorite Olivia Pope line I have ever written ever. #youwantmeearnme"), and perhaps more important, a feeling of direct "I'm Watching With You" connection — "West Coast Gladiators: GET OFF TWITTER NOW! #spoilers #752."
Many of the "Scandal" cast have followed Rhimes' prolific example; it is not uncommon for one or several to tweet photos of them on set, tweeting.
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The audience has responded in kind. Gladiators reject the DVR experience to watch "Scandal" in real time, creating an enormous digital version of college friends arranging their schedules around a beloved daytime drama. For its returning episode in March, "Scandal" drew 119,000 tweets, beating longtime Twitter favorite "American Idol" by almost 80,000. This season's penultimate episode drew almost 9 million viewers and a series high in the coveted 18-49 demographic; needless to say, Twitter went wild.
The show is a new-media phenomenon, a flag bearer for Direct Courtship TV. Without Twitter to boost its profile and then its ratings, "Scandal" probably would have been canceled. Instead, it's held up as an example of social media prowess by networks and branding experts of every stripe, and its success further stokes the belief that somehow Twitter can save us all.
Anyone producing "original content" (including this story) has their hopes pinned on social media. "Follow me on Twitter" has become a standard sign-off on business cards and correspondence, and an industry of social media consultants now offer advice to institutions that once shuddered at the word "publicity."
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Theaters, where cellphone tones have been known to spark onstage meltdowns, now have designated "tweet seats" to encourage live commentary during performances. Steven Soderbergh, after famously exiting film, is currently writing a novel with pictures, a tweet at a time. Stephen Colbert recently taught Bill Clinton to tweet, and then tweeted about the experience.
"Scandal" proves that Twitter can work. It also illuminates its price. Having drawn the beast's attention, you must now continually feed it. And it's a picky eater.
Social media is not built for subtlety — it's difficult to do nuance in 140 characters. The new, the outrageous, the quotable, the one-sentence insight, the exultant zinger, the sweeping statement — that is where the demographic lives.
Before "Scandal," Rhimes was behind the more spiritual show "Off the Map," which also drew disappointing reviews and poor early numbers. The show runner did her best, but could raise no fan base. The tagline for the show's Twitter account may offer one explanation: "The creators of Grey's Anatomy bring you an uplifting medical drama that explores how far you have to go to truly heal."
No one goes on Twitter — or nighttime TV for that matter — to "truly heal."
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With its high drama, built-in political commentary and reliance on memorable declarative dialogue ("I am not a lawyer, I am a gladiator in a suit"), "Scandal" came out of the box Twitter-friendly. But even that wasn't quite enough. Originally constructed as a "crisis du jour" procedural, the series didn't achieve liftoff until fans became devoted to the Pope / Fitz love drama.