A Show Makes Friends and History
‘Scandal’ on ABC Is Breaking Barriers
“Scandal,” now in its second season, has been a success for ABC. Last week the show had 3.52 million viewers aged 18 to 49 and 8.4 million total viewers. Among the group aged 18 to 34 it typically ranks first in its 10 p.m. Thursday time slot. A political thriller set in Washington, “Scandal” has attracted some inside-the-beltway fans like the political strategists Donna Brazile and Roland S. Martin, who have both tweeted about the show.
The show’s other sweet spot — one that network executives seem less eager to discuss — is its success among African-American audiences. According to Nielsen “Scandal” is the highest rated scripted drama among African-Americans, with 10.1 percent of black households, or an average of 1.8 million viewers, tuning in during the first half of the season.
One reason for that success is the casting of Kerry Washington, who became the first African-American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years. (The first was Diahann Carroll starring as a widowed single mother working as a nurse in the 1968 series “Julia.” A second show, “Get Christie Love,” starring Theresa Graves as an undercover cop, had its debut in 1974.)
Her casting has prompted discussion among academics and fans of the show about whether “Scandal” represents a new era of postracial television, in which cast members are ethnically diverse but are not defined by their race or ethnicity.
“There’s an audience of African-Americans who just want to see themselves in a good story, not necessarily a race-specific show,” said Joan Morgan, a fan of the series and the author of “When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost,” a book about black women and feminism today. “It’s not about this being a black show,” Ms. Morgan said. “It’s about seeing the show where black women and other women are represented less about race and more about who they are.”
“Scandal” follows the twists and turns of Olivia Pope, a political fixer played by Ms. Washington, and her team of lawyers, hackers and political insiders. The character is loosely based on the real Washington operative Judy Smith, a former member of the George H. W. Bush White House and well-known crisis manager who has represented, among others, Monica Lewinsky and Michael Vick. (Ms. Smith is a co-executive producer on the show). Olivia is also having an affair with the president of the United States, Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III, played by Tony Goldwyn.
Asked whether she felt any pressure being in this unusual position, Ms. Washington said the pressure was on the audience more than on the cast and crew. She said in an e-mail: “The question was: Are audiences ready to have the stories that we tell on television to be more inclusive? Are we ready for our protagonists to represent people of all different genders and ethnicities?”
“I think the success of the show speaks to how we have become more inclusive as a society because the fans of the show span all different races and ages and genders,” she wrote. “It’s very exciting.” For Dr. Brittney Cooper, co-founder of Crunk Feminist Collective and assistant professor of women’s studies at Rutgers University, the subtleties of Ms. Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, make her most attractive.
“The few black women we’ve seen in prime-time roles in scripted shows, they have to be morally above scrutiny, and she’s not,” Dr. Cooper said. In addition to her relationship with the president, Ms. Washington’s character has defended the reputations of dictators, executives and politicians.
“She’s the most complex black female lead we’ve ever seen in prime time,” Dr. Cooper said. “You’re not getting an archetype, you’re not getting a stereotype, you’re getting a fully fledged human being,” she said.
Shonda Rhimes, the executive producer and creator of the show declined repeated requests for an interview, and representatives for the show seem less interested in talking about the subject of race and “Scandal.” While excited about the show’s success among African-American audiences, they were eager to point out the show’s success among all audiences.
Ms. Rhimes also created “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” shows that have also prominently featured ethnically diverse casts and interracial relationships. One of the few instances in which race was directly addressed by the characters in “Scandal” was an exchange between Olivia and Fitz, as the president is known. Olivia, discussing their relationship, tells him, “I’m feeling a little Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson about all this.” Later Fitz confronts Olivia and tells her that the comment was “below the belt.”
“You’re playing the race card on the fact that I’m in love with you,” he says.
Twitter and Facebook lit up with reaction. “Rhimes is so smart.” said Dr. Kaila Story, who holds the Audre Lorde chair in race, class, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Louisville. She said the producer wanted to make clear this was a very different kind of relationship. “The whole institution of enslavement in and of itself does not engender a romantic relationship,” Dr. Story said.
Social media was part of the show’s strategy from the beginning. During broadcasts cast members live-tweet about each episode. “The fans look forward to joining the cast each week so they can ‘watch together’ and talk about the show while it’s on,” Marla Provencio, the executive vice president for marketing and the chief marketing officer at the ABC Entertainment Group, wrote in an e-mail.
The network’s efforts seem to have paid off. The show has a healthy number of people tweeting during the broadcast, and virtual “Scandal” parties have sprung up on Facebook so friends can watch and comment together. The last episode of the show before its hiatus in December generated 2,838 tweets per minute and a total of 157,601 tweets.
“I can connect with my sister in Houston, my friends who are living across the country, everybody who is watching the show,” said Diane Johnson a vice president in Washington for Ketchum, a public relations company, and an avid fan of the show who was invited to a virtual Facebook party. “It enhances the entertainment factor for me.”