'Scandal' Creates Twitter Frenzy

Social media was ablaze during the season finale of ABC's hit political thriller Scandal. Host Michel Martin asks Gene Demby, blogger for NPR's Code Switch team, what it is about the show that makes it ripe for Twitter chatter — especially among African Americans.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to flip the channel and turn to another hit television show. The ABC program "Scandal" just wrapped up its second season in a blaze of plot-twisted glory. If you're late to the game, there are going to be some spoilers here and there, but here's a clip from the finale.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCANDAL")

JOE MORTON: (as Rowan) Hello, Olivia.

KERRY WASHINGTON: (as Olivia Pope) Dad?

MARTIN: Now even if you don't watch the show, chances are you can't get away from it on Twitter and other social media platforms, especially when it airs on Thursday evenings. We wanted to talk about why this show gets so much social media attention, especially from African-Americans, so we've called Gene Demby. He wrote about this in a blog for NPR's Code Switch team and he's with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Gene, welcome back.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Thanks, Michel. Thanks for having me again.

MARTIN: So a lot of people are talking about Black Twitter and they are saying that this has played a major role in the success of "Scandal." What is Black Twitter? And is it true?

DEMBY: So Black Twitter is this jokey appellation that black people have given their own little universe on Twitter. So black people make up 14 percent of the population but they make up a quarter of all the people on Twitter. So when black people have a fascination around something it becomes a megaphone. So if Serena Williams is playing like in the Wimbledon finals, let's say, it becomes a trending topic really quickly and so black television watchers have really galvanized around "Scandal" for a bunch of different reasons.

MARTIN: You're saying that watching "Scandal" is a communal experience. You're saying it's a deeply, edifying, profoundly communal experience, and it just isn't the same if you watch it by yourself a day later.

DEMBY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Why is that?

DEMBY: It's like watching the Super Bowl on DVR, right? You want to be in the room with everyone kind of yelling at the screen and rolling their eyes and throwing their hands up and saying all kinds of snarky stuff, right? And that's how it is to watch "Scandal," right? At the center of the show there's this gorgeous, accomplished woman played by Kerry Washington named Olivia Pope and there's so many ways to receive her. She's either like an antihero or she's the person we all want to be when we grow up or the person we all want to marry one day or whoever. And so everyone is kind of wrestling with all these things that she's doing.

MARTIN: And why do you think that this kind of social media gathering - this communal watching experience - has contributed to the success of the program? Because it kind of guarantees eyeballs, people sitting there at the moment that the show is on the air, is that why?

DEMBY: Yes. Absolutely. You're having conversation with people that you don't know, which always happens on Twitter. But for black people on Twitter, I think there's a chance to kind of worked out a lot of issues or like I kind of have debates in a space that's - these aren't political debates but they're definitely debates about the kind of stuff we all deal with, right? Relationships and whether things are appropriate and, you know, it's just a funny, ridiculous time and it feels like it goes by too quickly.

MARTIN: You also pointed out in your piece that the creator of the show, Shonda Rhimes is an African-American, you know, woman herself. Do you think that that's part of it?

DEMBY: Oh, it's a big part of it. I mean, Kerry Washington, who is the star of the show, is the first black woman to be the lead of a network drama in almost three decades and Shonda Rhimes is the most powerful woman probably in network television. And so I think there is some element of solidarity happening around us, but it speaks a lot to the paucity of black faces on TV, that people feel a kind of kinship to the show and want it to do well. But just wanting it to do well has not propelled other shows the same way. So there's something about "Scandal." There's Olivia, who is a fixer for this white Republican president and they're having an affair, right? And so what's interesting about that is there's a critical mass of black women rooting for a white Republican who stole an election and the woman he's having an affair with. That's a very fascinating little phenomenon.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things I also noticed is that you'd think that - OK, there's an African-American female creator of the show, there's an African-American female lead on the show, but you are neither.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You are not. You are African-American but you are not a woman. And on Twitter I've noticed that it's a lot of men are weighing in too.

DEMBY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Do you find that goes across groups?

DEMBY: It's almost like you have to watch "Scandal" to be culturally fluent almost. I mean you have to, in order to be able to have a water cooler conversation the next day, you have to know that Olivia and Fitz are a mess, right, and you have to know why they're a mess. It's like the next, the day after the Super Bowl you don't want that person like, oh, I really enjoyed the commercials. Like if, you know, I mean you can have that conversation but you need to be tuned in to have that conversation.

MARTIN: Give me an example of some of the tweets that caught your eye. Do you mind?

DEMBY: Well, I mean...

MARTIN: Like so of the things that people have tweeted about that really caught your attention - or even who.

DEMBY: The other day, it was funny watching Gwen Ifill of PBS and Michele Norris of NPR kind of having this conversation about "Scandal," they we were like, girl. I mean, it's just like my aunties and my professors and my colleagues and my little cousins are all engaging in the same cultural moment. It was a lot of fun.

MARTIN: Do other groups do this? Have you observed this phenomenon among other groups?

DEMBY: You know, actually my hunch is - and this is just me taking a guess - that there's a lot of stuff like that happening on Spanish-language Twitter when people are speaking in different languages. But Black Twitter tends to kind of galvanize around a few moments every year. But "Scandal" feels like a major pop culture moment, like an award show every Thursday.

MARTIN: Finally, before we, you know, OK, if you don't mind my saying, Gene, I get the feeling you don't really like the show.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I get the feeling you kind of hate yourself for liking it so much. Do I have that right? Have I clued into something?

DEMBY: At first when I watched it I was kind of hate watching it, right? It was definitely like a, this is ridiculous, this is preposterous. But then I realized I was just watching it wrong. I was just watching it like expecting it to be...

MARTIN: Like a journalist.

DEMBY: Right. Exactly. Yeah.

MARTIN: Expecting stuff to be true.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: Expecting it to be plausible, right? Instead of just being like, you know, Kerry Washington is fine, she's fly, right? Instead of being like this is purple and fun and ridiculous and just letting it all wash over me, I was like once I got to the kind of resolve to just watch it for what it is...

MARTIN: The willful suspension of disbelief for an hour, right.

DEMBY: Absolutely. And just kind of having conversation with other people, it just became a much more enjoyable experience.

MARTIN: That was Gene Demby. He's a blogger for NPR's Code Switch team. Thanks, Gene.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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