Social media pick up on 'Scandal'

Kerry Washington portrays Olivia Pope, a lawyer and "fixer."
Kerry Washington portrays Olivia Pope, a lawyer and "fixer."
Posted: April 26, 2013

ABC's sultry prime-time hit Scandal is a quick-paced drama starring Kerry Washington as high-powered crisis manager Olivia Pope.

Pope, a no-nonsense-yet-emotionally vulnerable black woman, is having a steamy affair with the white Republican president of the United States, Fitzgerald "Fitz" Grant, played by the guy you'll remember as the baddie from Ghost, Tony Goldwyn.

It's crazy, it's dizzying, and we love it.

Scandal's success this season - it ranks a strong second in its 10 p.m. time slot in total viewers ages 18 to 49 - is more than confirmation that America loves a good nighttime soap. It shows how social media have changed how we watch not just reality TV and presidential debates, but prime-time drama as well.

After a two-week hiatus, Scandal will be back Thursday night, kicking off May sweeps. With just three more episodes left, Scandal fans - called Gladiators, after Pope's crew of problem-solvers - are champing at the bit.

There's a lot to excite them in the hour-long scenarios deftly written by Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes: Will Fitz survive an assassination attempt? A gang of D.C. insiders rigged the election? Can Pope manage a love triangle with Fitz and the hot surveillance guy, Jake? All this action happens against a backdrop of soul tunes - one of many is the bass line of Edwin Starr's 1969 hit "War."

 "I'm telling you, come Thursday night, I'm going to have my wine, my feet up, and my snacks," said Pam Kennebrew, a Gladiator and therapist who lives in West Philadelphia. "I'll have a little cheese and crackers. My iPad will be next to me . . . my phone . . . I just can't wait."

 Scandal marks a return to the days when most viewers watched dramas when they aired - as opposed to recording them on VCR or DVR to watch at their leisure.

After all, no good Gladiator wants to be out of the Twitter loop.

So far, Scandal has generated 2.85 million tweets - most of them while the show is on. That's 25 percent more tweets than Fox's American Idol, with 2.28 million tweets.

" Scandal has brought back the lost art of must-see TV," said Janet Sternberg, assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. "Since the days of the VCR, we've had less and less reason to watch the same things at the same time."

The social-media blitz has been part network-driven, part grassroots reaction. Before the show even aired, ABC released the first full episode online.

Then when the show did air, the entire cast, including Washington and Goldwyn, began tweeting live.

The network also instituted an #AskScandal hashtag to announce weekly promotional events, and at the end of the first season, it took advantage of a cliff-hanger - the mystery behind Gladiator Quinn Perkins' identity - and created a #whoisQuinn hashtag.

"It's a marketing bonanza," said Sternberg. "It brings back viewers to the mainstream media that have left, and it even provides new sources of marketing data that networks can measure."

Josie Carter-Zieglar (hashtag OutlawJoz), a New York-based event coordinator, watched the first episode of Scandal on her computer, on a whim. The 54-year-old mother had never been on Twitter before, but after watching the first love scene between Olitz - the Brangelina name for Olivia and Fitz - that "took her to oblivion and back," she created a new name for herself on the social media site: ScandalousDiva Joz.

"I went to see the cast on Good Morning America when they were doing the press tour, and I waved at Kerry and screamed, 'I'm Outlaw Josie,' " said Zieglar, who is planning the first - and she hopes, annual - Gladiator event in New York this summer.

"And she turned around and she came over and hugged me and she said, 'Look everybody, it's Outlaw Josie,' " Zieglar said. "And then she tweeted it." Washington has more than 800,000 Twitter followers.

That the show is somewhat fact-based makes the Scandal scandals even more salacious. Rhimes based Pope on Judy Smith, a real-life crisis manager who worked with Monica Lewinsky during the Bill Clinton sex drama and helped Philadelphia Eagle Michael Vick mend his reputation post-dog days.

Smith says she's never slept with a president, but she is African American, and in casting Washington, Rhimes made television history: Washington is the first black woman to have the female lead on a broadcast drama in almost 40 years. ( Get Christie Love! starred Teresa Graves in 1974-75.)

The outfits worn by Washington, who is dressed by costume designer Lyn Paolo, get attention on fashion blogs and especially on Twitter, where, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, African Americans out-tweet whites by 26 percent.

Some of that chatter, especially from African American women, reflects their excitement that Washington is a well-rounded character who is pretty, competent, even flawed - but not angry.

"I'm inspired by her," said Darisha K. Miller, a Philadelphia public relations executive, who often must help her clients clean up their images. "I like the behind-the-scenes drama."

Other women like the romance.

"She's vulnerable; she has a real compassion for people," said Kennebrew. "She does what she does out of compassion and empathy. It may not be right, but she shows us that black women can be multidimensional and not necessarily prone to histrionics."

Many black men, on the other hand, criticize the drama for painting Pope as a Jezebel, engaging in a love triangle with two white men and turning down a marriage proposal by Edison Davis, a black senator played by Norm Lewis. (Twitter fans lovingly refer to him as Pudding Pop because of Lewis' resemblance to Bill Cosby.)

"For me it's the imagery," said Kevin Ghee of Philadelphia, who watches the show but is not a fan of the character. "You have a powerful woman and the black man in her life is not good enough for her."

Salamishah Tillet, an assistant professor of English and Africana Studies at University of Pennsylvania, says that Rhimes has done a good job tapping into "of-the-moment issues" like gay marriage, and stirring conversations about interracial relationships, specifically between white men and black women.

Rhimes' work "represents our desire to be more progressive than we really are today," Tillet said. "I don't think if she was sleeping with a married African American man, we'd be having this kind of conversation."


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@philynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl, where she'll be live-tweeting "Scandal," too.

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