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How ‘Scandal’ Raised the Bar for TV’s Social Media Impact

After seven seasons and more than 120 episodes, Shonda Rhimes’ fixer-drama “Scandal” is signing off ABC for good April 19. The series broke new ground when it first premiered in April 2012 for its sharp-tongued characters, willingness to take on tough political topics, inclusive casting — and ushering in a new era of appointment (and interactive) television by live-Tweeting.

“I hope that people remember being a little more alive because of our show,” says Kerry Washington, who spearheaded the plan to get the rest of the cast on the social media platform. “We take you on a ride of intensity and fear and romance and sorrow and elation. You’re more connected, and that, I feel, is important.”

The series premiere of “Scandal” debuted to the tune of 7.33 million live+same day viewers and averaged 8.21 million viewers in its first, seven-episode, season. The ratings grew steadily over the course of the first few years, seeing a peak in season 4 with an average total viewership of 12.66 million.

That season was a pinnacle for the series’ social ratings as well. To date, the season 4 premiere entitled “Randy, Red, Superfreak and Julia,” which aired on Sept. 25, 2014, is still the most-Tweeted episode with more than 724,000 Tweets sent during the episode, according to Twitter.

“I think part of what made the ‘Scandal’ interaction really authentic was they had been devoted to this from the beginning,” Twitter global partnership solutions leader Lara Cohen tells Variety. “They made this party on Twitter every week where they created this amazing relationship with fans where everyone could watch the show together. …It really drove this tremendous word-of-mouth campaign.”

Through “Scandal,” those at Twitter saw new potential in their platform as a marketing tool to help artists promote their passion projects.

“[‘Scandal’] was so successful in terms of driving audience and tune-in that after season 3 on the Twitter side we were getting, from other networks and other shows, ‘How can we do what “Scandal” did?'” says Cohen. Twitter execs would then hold bootcamps for other series to help them see the potential in the platform.

With so much content readily available and a steady decline of live Nielsen numbers, Cohen feels the live-Tweeting the “Scandal” cast did helped “eventize” the episodes and make the audience feel like they had to watch live to be a part of something bigger, and less passive, than the average viewing experience.

“Twitter is [known for] in-the-moment content, and [live-Tweeting] is just a way to break through,” Cohen says. “At this point, so many stars have these tremendous followings on Twitter. To leverage those followings toward these shows is just a great way to really broaden the audience.”

While all shows often experience viewing bumps in engagement tied to events like premieres or finales, “Scandal” delivered enough of an experience week-to-week that the show’s most-Tweeted episodes aren’t necessarily the beginning or end of a season. The “Run” episode of season 4, which was the 10th of the year, is the second most Tweeted episode in the show’s history at 483,070 Tweets, while season 4 episodes “Where The Sun Don’t Shine” (399,459 Tweets) and “Like Father, Like Daughter” (328,133 Tweets) come in at numbers four and five, respectively. (The fifth season premiere takes the third spot on that list with 453,296 Tweets.)

The fact that the cast was interacting in real-time as the thrills in the storylines played out on-screen encouraged audiences to say more on the platform, creating a sense of community, says Cohen.

“The most meaningful thing is making the audience feel heard — so responding, replying to certain fans on Twitter or reTweeting fans or quote-Tweeting fans,” she notes. “It wasn’t just them broadcasting their behind-the-scenes…or promoting things.”

By interacting with their audience on Twitter, the “Scandal” cast and crew was also able to expand their reach. In April 2012 Kerry Washington had 479,873 Twitter follows. Six years later, her reach has grown to 5.3 million. Washington rallied the rest of the cast to utilize the platform, and for some, this meant literally starting from scratch. Tony Goldwyn had 209 followers in April 2012, but now the actor and director has grown to over 527,000. Similarly, Guillermo Diaz started the series with 218 Twitter followers and grew to over 484,000, while Bellamy Young only had 58 and now boasts over 404,000.

That reach is international. Over the last year, the U.S., Brazil, the U.K., Japan and Canada were the top territories Tweeting about the show.

Those fans included actors on other shows, such as Retta and Lena Dunham, as well as icons like Oprah and Mariah Carey.

The “Scandal” team was also savvy in crafting plot-specific hashtags that helped build further buzz around the show’s most compelling storylines. Some of the top-used hashtags for the series included #DrunkMellie, #Olitz, #WhoIsQuinn and #WhoShotFitz.

In September 2015, just ahead of the fifth season premiere, Twitter introduced the idea of using a specific emoji and hashtag combination to “unlock” bonus content. In subsequent years, a special emoji of Olivia Pope was attached directly to the end of the “Scandal” hashtag, giving posts about the show a little extra color.

“[Twitter] and Shondaland and ABC got really creative about what those emojis were because they were for a super passionate audience,” Cohen says. “We really think of Shondaland and ABC as partners.”

While the cast of “Scandal” can’t deny the importance of the social media impact of their show, that is not the only legacy they want to leave behind.

“Shonda’s often said that she doesn’t create worlds that should be, she writes the world as it is — or as she sees it as being,” says Tony Goldwyn. “And in terms of what Shonda and ‘Scandal’ has done to normalize diversity, I think has been really impactful. It has shown the power of television. Things that were maybe exceptional, because you see it every week, become normal.”

Watch the cast of “Scandal” read their first-ever Tweets about their show below:

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