In the age of DVRs, on demand, and streaming video, is anyone really watching TV shows live anymore? If you're asking a fan of Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and/or How to Get Away With Murder, more often than not, the answer is: "Of course!" The reason lies in some alchemical magic involving creator/executive producer Shonda Rhimes' talent for thrilling plots and compelling characters, the rise of Twitter as a TV community, and network execs who figured out how to use it all to their advantage (without ticking anyone off). The Shondaland Thursday night block isn't exactly a new phenomenon — it began in 2005, with the premiere of Grey's Anatomy spin off Private Practice. "Grey's flowed so seamlessly into Private Practice, it almost felt like getting two episodes of Grey's," C, a 29-year-old fan from Wilmington, North Carolina, who tweets under the handle @ScandalOPsessed, told Refinery29 via email. While the drama starring Kate Walsh had decent ratings its first two seasons, it was never a pop culture phenomenon. And, when Walsh decided to leave the show after an abbreviated season six, the network allowed the Practice to close along with her, fizzling out at No. 58 in the ratings in January 2013. But when Scandal stepped into that Thursday night spot in the spring of 2012, things went a little differently. For one, as Variety pointed out, it was one of the first shows ABC actively promoted on Twitter with plot-related hashtags like #WhoShotFitz. "I had always tweeted about Grey's here and there, but never with a whole fan base or the actors," Sydney Braga, a.k.a. @syddybee, a 21-year-old fan from Massachusetts explains via email. "It wasn't until Scandal came along that I felt the live-tweeting was almost as important as watching the actual episode. I started tweeting about Scandal and noticed that my tweets were getting responses from people halfway around the world who shared the same (or different) views and thought it was something really incredible." There was just something about the high-stakes drama of world-fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), that cried out for real-time conversation: She had an affair with the president (Tony Goldwyn), who was possibly elected under illegal circumstances and becomes the victim of an assassination attempt.
"I had my own personal Twitter that I originally used to tweet about Season 2 of Scandal, but I quickly realized that was ALL I ever talked about, so to spare my real-life friends from all my fan-girling, I created my Scandal fan account," says C, who has more than 8,000 Twitter followers. "I wanted to talk to the cast and the other fans, but the idea of live-tweeting and being a part of something so big and having the same instantaneous reactions as the other fans was so much fun." At the same time, Rhimes began realizing how they could use Twitter in a new way. "I had been on Twitter for a long time and had originally used it to interact with fans and remind them when my shows were on," Rhimes told Variety last year. "It later became a different tool when Kerry Washington suggested that the Scandal cast join Twitter, and I mobilized everyone to live tweet the episodes." Their involvement made a huge difference, according to the fans, and it's part of what keeps them watching live. "So often the cast will tell us tidbits like, 'Oh, this scene was so hard to film,' or, 'That location was so cool, it had a pool out back where we hung out,' or tweet out BTS pictures from when they were filming," C says. "I love the instant gratification of getting feedback and details from the cast as opposed to waiting for an interview and hoping the reporter asks the questions you want to hear."
ABC was fully aware and ready to harness that excitement when Shondaland's How to Get Away With Murder premiered last fall. ABC's executive director of digital strategy, Ben Blatt, says that his department has nothing to do with scheduling, but he and his team were excited to launch #TGIT as a hashtag and introduce the show's cast into the Twittersphere."Everyone knew who Viola Davis was, and some of the actors on How to Get Away With Murder have had a lot of success in other TV shows and films, but we wanted to make sure, from a social media perspective, that we were getting their [Twitter] handles out there. So we actively started pushing that out before the show even launched." Fans of the other Shondaland shows also lent a hand to promote the newest members of the Thursday night family. "As I got more involved with Twitter, I had seen much of the [Scandal] cast/crew talking about HTGAWM," C says. "One of the executive producers from Scandal, Tom Verica, was starring in HTGAWM as Sam Keating, so I was very interested to see the premiere." C wasn't alone, and when the show, starring Viola Davis as a law professor and defense attorney with questionable morals, premiered last September, it was the biggest freshman series of the season. A lot goes on behind the scenes to keep that momentum going every Thursday night. While all of the cast and many crewmembers have been onboard with participating in social media, Blatt says many were novices who needed training in best practices. And the ABC staffers posting on behalf of the shows have to maintain a delicate balance between representing the network and using the authentic voice fans love.
"The people on my team that work on this show in particular are superfans," Blatt says. On Thursday nights, four of them are on deck to manage all the social media accounts, and while they've already seen the episodes in advance and have talked to the producers about what's to come, they do their best to react to what the audience is reacting to in real time. "As we've progressed, using #TGIT and using other brand hashtags and references, we like to see what people will come up with. We like to see the terminology, like 'Olitz' when they're talking about Olivia and Fitz — that's not something we're manufacturing. We see fans do that and then we embrace it." At the same time, ABC's social media team has had fun creating their own memes for the shows. And, we're not just talking about all the #TGIT wine-and-popcorn-throwing promos that have been all over our screens leading up to this season's premiere. Earlier, you may have seen the GIFs featuring characters from, say, How to Get Away With Murder talking about Grey's, or vice versa.
The numbers indicate that their efforts are working. According to Ad Week, Nielsen reported that 620,000 tweets about Grey's Anatomy were seen by 5.2 million people during the McDreamy death episode last season. Or, you can compare @ScandalABC's 896,000 plus followers (or @GreysABC's 1.7 million) to @TheGoodWife_CBS's 306,000. Blatt says that while measuring social media's direct effect on ratings is still an imprecise science, so far, when social media activity is up, so is live viewership.
Another demonstration of the success of Shondaland is how fans have responded to ABC's latest "How do you TGIT?" campaign, in which they describe shutting out the world and sitting on the couch for three hours, not even getting up to pee, as if DVRs had never been invented. "The last few years I've had a job that required me to work until 10 p.m., so I made sure that I always had Thursdays off," Braga says. "I usually get home around five, rewatch the previous week's episodes (of all three shows) and then start my live-tweeting and watching. Anyone in my family could tell you that it's like talking to a brick wall trying to talk to me while the shows are on. My focus is generally split between the screen and my computer (phone too), but sometimes if it gets too good, I have to stop the tweeting altogether. We all know how emotionally painful the shows can be, so my Thursdays are also usually taken up with a good amount of crying — I still can't talk about Derek Shepherd — until it's time to go to bed and wake up on Friday with a need to watch them all over again." The cast and crew are constantly rewarding the dedication of Braga and her fellow superfans. "My very first twitter interaction was more than three years ago with Guillermo Díaz, who plays Huck on Scandal, and I'm pretty sure everybody within a 100 mile radius heard about it," Braga says. "I was so excited and could barely contain myself, and then he kept the conversation going instead of not responding again. I thought I was going to die. I'm pretty sure I printed out the tweets and hung them on my dorm room wall." Not that interactions with Shondaland are restricted to Thursday nights. Just imagine how much work this student got done on the night she tweeted at Kerry Washington.