Scandal leaves legacy of live-tweeting

Now in its final season, TV series gave fans sense of belonging

ABC's prime-time political soap Scandal launched with little fanfare in 2012, to tepid reviews and disappointing ratings.

Following the exploits of Emmy-nominated US actress Kerry Washington as crisis manager Olivia Pope and her team of problem-solving "gladiators", the show did not immediately take off.

But as it nears its finale six years on, it is bowing out as a bona fide hit that changed the way we watch TV, ushering in the era of live-tweeting shows, known as "double screening".

Its army of vocal Twitter fans, who also call themselves "gladiators", helped ratings for Scandal soar more than 50 per cent to 12.7 million an episode by 2014.

Much of its success was driven by the goodwill it engendered as an intriguing Washington, DC political story of sex, murder and double-dealing starring a strong black female character.

But its showrunner, Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, has been credited with the insight that stars and producers live-tweeting episodes with fans makes a difference in ratings. From the earliest days, she would diligently connect with her Twitter followers, who have expanded during the show's lifetime from 350,000 to 1.7 million.

"Gladiators: Scandal would not have the opportunity to be on magazine covers without all of you watching. Thank you for making it happen!" she would tweet, giving fans a feeling of belonging.

Rhimes would offer personal insight into production and the scriptwriting process and, most importantly, rope in the cast to post their own thoughts in real-time. It is a common tactic these days but no one was really doing it - certainly not on a regular, reliable basis - before Rhimes.

By the second season, Scandal was drawing 119,000 tweets an episode and ratings began to climb, particularly among the millennial group that advertisers covet.

Currently airing its seventh season on Fridays at 9pm on Fox Life (Singtel TV Ch 301/StarHub TV Ch 501), the show finishes for good on April 19.


US actor Tony Goldwyn, who plays ex-president Fitzgerald "Fitz" Grant, Pope's long-time love interest, told journalists at a recent set visit how the cast had embraced Rhimes' ground-breaking strategy.

"It completely transformed my perception of social media. I was sceptical and judgmental about it, and just thought... it was irrelevant to me," he said.

The 57-year-old figured no one would be interested in his opinions but was staggered when thousands of people began following his Twitter account and responding to his tweets.

"I was really awed by the impact of it and the fact that you can literally communicate one-on-one with people or a group."

Other networks have begun to catch up, but Scandal still finished ninth across broadcast stations last year on the social media charts, with 5.2 million interactions.

The cast makes sure to live-tweet for audience in both the east and west coast time zones, said Cornelius Smith Jr, who plays White House communications director Marcus Walker.

"It is a lot of fun, and it is a really different kind of way to communicate and connect. I think people are really yearning for connection in this world, especially today," he said.

Jeff Perry, who plays vice-president Cyrus Beene, joked that the only negative reaction to the live-tweeting had come from other actors in Hollywood.

Though they can be full of praise, he said that "a little more often they are (annoyed) at us. 'You guys made that work and now I have to tweet all the time.'"

Social media aside, Scandal has an equally important reason to be proud of its reputation for pioneering TV - its commitment to diversity. All the characters in the most powerful roles are women, and the show has always been committed to reflecting the racial diversity of modern-day America.

"When we first aired, most of the questions I received centred on the fact that there had not been a black woman as the lead in a television drama in my lifetime," said Washington, 40.

"It was not something I grew up seeing... and that is certainly not the case now. You would be hard-pressed to find a network that does not have a show with a woman of colour at its centre." - AFP