Written by ModernMediaMix
Tuesday, March 12th, 2013
ABC has struck platinum with “Scandal.” More than 9 million viewers tune in to the action-packed political thriller every week to follow the rollercoaster life of Olivia Pope, a high-powered crisis manager, and her team of code crackers, killers and broken souls. “Scandal” has led ABC to the top of the primetime pack on Thursdays where the network is No. 1 among young adults 18-to-29.
However, one of the under appreciated but crucial audience demographics driving “Scandal’s” success is women of color, particularly black American women. This legion of “gladiators” invades social media networks on Thursday nights theorizing about Olivia Pope’s shenanigans and predicting plot twists. Black American women between the ages of 18 and 29 have rallied behind “Scandal” and are dedicated to its longevity and ratings success. This dedication can be attributed to three specific reasons: the actress Kerry Washington, the complex cast of characters, and the engaging of audiences through social media.
Olivia Pope is a boss, literally and figuratively. The dynamic character, played by Kerry Washington, was inspired by real-life crisis negotiator Julie Smith. She was brought to life by Shonda Rhimes, creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice.” Three black American women in the creator, producer, inspiration and lead actress spots on a hit network television show grabbed black women’s attention immediately. Washington’s turn on “Scandal” is a historic. It is the first time a black woman has led a primetime network drama in more than three decades and the first time we’ve been offered such a dynamic character.
Washington’s Pope character is not only in charge of a team of negotiators, she is also a willing mistress to Tony Goldwyn’s President Fitzgerald Grant. Their complicated, interracial romance is far removed from the Clair Huxtable-perfectionist or the Beulah-mammy days of our television past. “She’s human. The great thing about her is that she’s not perfect. She’s not this magical character who walks into a room and fixes everything all the time, including her own life,” Washington told USA Today.
Historically, black women were portrayed in broadcast television in four roles: the Hypersexual Jezebel, the Welfare Queen, the Stressed Mother balancing-it-all, or the Nurturing Mammy. All of these stereotypes cast black women as a community in need of fixing. Pope subverts these paradigms by fixing the lives of influential figures while also dealing with her internal conflicts. It’s refreshing to see such a depiction of black as complex, but beautiful, chic and in control.
Washington’s Pope isn’t the only role capturing and engaging black women. There’s also Harrison (Columbus Short), a gorgeous computer hacker turned gladiator that often uses his charm as a tool of persuasion. His dedication to Pope is admirable, but also displays a loyalty between a black man and black woman that’s often neglected in television representations of black relationships and platonic friendships. Another character that appeals to black women is Huck (Guillermo Diaz), a former CIA-assassin that’s integral to the reputation of Pope’s crisis-management firm. His killer instinct paradoxes his humanity causing continual moments of consciousness that resonate with black women viewers. Both Short and Diaz are minorities as well.
Though character development and complex representations of communities of color have been vital to the show’s success, the access to the actors and show executives has also fueled the cult-like following. ABC markets “Scandal” as Thursday’s “most-talked-about-show on Twitter.” This is accurate advertising. “Scandal” averages 350,000 tweets per episode and hashtags #AskScandal, #Scandal and #Gladiators trend every week. Viewers use social media to live-tweet the show and also participate in “ask Scandal,” a live question-and-answer session with the show’s stars, hairstylists, makeup artists, directors, writers and producers.
More than 2.07 million “Scandal”-related tweets have been sent this season and some, including ABC Entertainment Group’s executive vice president Marla Provenci, estimate this can change how Nielsen scores ratings in the future. “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,” Provenci told Yahoo.
That’s an underestimate of social media’s influence. Oprah Winfrey learned about “Scandal” through Twitter and then featured the drama on “Oprah’s Next Chapter.” Rhimes credits the national exposure to the community engagement Twitter provides. “Fans feel a certain ownership of the show,” Rhimes told Yahoo. “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.”
Black women love “Scandal.” They absorb it with fervor and attempt to reel in as many friends and relatives as possible. This newfound audience demographic has led to the creation of other network dramas starring people of color. CBS offered gigs to Megalyn Echikunwoke, Cedric Sanders and Derek Luke, NBC tapped Meagan Good in “Deception” and NBC is also developing a pilot starring Lance Gross as a secret service agent. I’ve dubbed this the “Scandal” effect. “Scandal” has effectively diversified primetime by showing network executives the impact and influence of black audiences. Let’s hope this lasts long after Olivia Pope and Associates close their doors.
- Evette Brown