Shonda’s Anatomy: A Closer Look at SCANDAL’s Transformation into Must See TV

By: BigTVFan

It’s always exciting to see a TV show rise and gain momentum and emerge into a full-blown hit. I’m talking about a show that doesn’t explode out of the gate (like say DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES). It’s kind of rare these days for a gradual climb as shows that don’t build some kind of audience quickly don’t usually get that kind of time. It’s not totally the networks itchy trigger finger to blame. We now live in a world far beyond only 3 Networks. Virtually every cable network is in the original series business, plus now there’s fresh content on the Internet and video services. The overall numbers of what’s a hit is so much smaller in general, so it’s rare to see a show build week to week and grow into one (especially at 10PM).

SCANDAL is the most recent example of a show that’s grown little by little and now after 19 episodes is a ratings hit. The momentum continues to grow. You can trace its ratings evolution to clever network promotion, an entire cast that engages with the audience on social media, but MOST importantly it’s due to a creator that is unique in her ability to create compelling television and to consistently do so.  

SCANDAL’s first abbreviated season basically averaged a 2.0 most weeks regardless of the GREY’S ANATOMY lead in. A 2.0 is respectable for 10PM but by no means was it setting the house on fire. Still, those numbers (and growing buzz) was more than enough for ABC to commit to second season. This past Thursday’s episode got a 2.7 which is a large 10PM number these days. It was .5 ahead of CBS’s ELEMENTARY which has the advantage of CBS starting off Thursday with ridiculously high numbers. SCANDAL was also .1 away from its GREY’s lead in.  It’s possible with this week’s upcoming pivotal episode, it will surpass it.

For whatever reason, ABC limited SCANDAL’s first season to an unusual (by network standards) seven episodes. It might have been because Shonda Rhimes was already producing another 46 hours of TV last season between her other two shows. It was likely also so it could run consecutively with fresh episodes of GREY’s for its entire run. But it was a very smart move, as Shonda crafted a State Of Play like miniseries which started off a bit more case of the week at the outset. It had a larger overall story edging its way in, until the overall story became the star in the last few eps. Episode six, “The Trail”, was brilliant in how it traced the origins of Olivia and Fitz’s relationship through the campaign trail. That episode accomplished so much – It told an origin story through flashbacks while tying it completely back to the present and driving the stakes up dramatically to the finale. Most impressively, it celebrated and highlighted the amazing physical and emotional chemistry of Olivia and Fitz (played wonderfully by Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn), to the point where the two characters just sat still silently on camera for a full minute. SCANDAL was fully realized in that episode and it’s rather astounding that amidst all the exposition and flashbacks, the show was almost at its most compelling when it just breathed and let its characters just stay silent. The fact that this was all accomplished in one episode is a huge credit to the genius of Shonda Rhimes and she has repeated this feat a number of times in season two.

Season two started off answering the “Who Is Quinn Perkins” cliffhanger from the first season finale but set off a series of questions that have been answered meticulously one by one through every episode with jolts and shocks. It’s all been leading up to a presumed conclusion with this weeks upcoming episode. Shonda was clearly hopeful they would get beyond 13 episodes this season, but didn’t get the greenlight for 22 until five episodes had aired and she was even deeper in the planning. There will likely be somewhat of a new arc for the back nine, though knowing Shonda’s clever storytelling devices, they will hue back to the overall story thus far.

Watching what Shonda Rhimes has done over the course of 19 episodes is a master class in showrunning 101. The way she has arc’d out the story, doling out information and answers in every episode while still offering surprising reveals and keeping character front and center is just masterful. It’s also a ton of fun to watch and is experiencing the kind of buzz, well like the first show she created – GREY’S ANATOMY.

I’ll come back to Ms. Rhimes in a bit, but I want to highlight the other things that contributed to SCANDAL’s rise. The three eps that aired in late Nov-Dec (episodes 207-209) revolved around the President bring shot. Beginning with episode 207 ABC really upped the on air ad campaign for the show highlighting and teasing the dramatic events about to unfold. (This is when the numbers began to rise). For episode 208 they ended the promo with the hashtag #whoshotfitz encouraging viewers to tweet with that, as well as drive home the story for the next episode. This has become the template for the promos ever since.

ABC knew what they had and promoted the show relentlessly over the holiday break with the return date. In recent years, GREYs was the show that got the most of ABCs Thursday night promotion. Now SCANDAL was. Their promos highlight everything that’s special about the show – The drama, the shocks but also the hot chemistry between the two leads. The show returned on January 10th with its highest numbers to date – 2.8.  

ABC is smart to be promoting the episodes with a hashtag since the show is one of the most active shows on twitter I have ever seen. Twitter is not usually an indication of ratings success. Many big flop shows trend. But on any given Thursday at 10PM, 6 out of 10 trending topics are SCANDAL related. The entire cast tweets along with fans on both coasts airing of the show. I know every cast swears they all love each other and their show but this cast truly seems to and the way they interact with the fans on Twitter every week attests to that. Twitter doesn’t usually move the ratings needle but I think in this case people on twitter can’t avoid seeing the multiple related SCANDAL tweets every week and I think it possibly encouraged others to tune in to see what they were missing (Oprah even said that’s what made her check it out). In this case, when a new viewer did tune in, the show delivered the goods.

I think it’s the convergence of all these things – clever ABC promotion, the cast on twitter  – but above all else a unique show that never slows down, that has taken the show to another level.

But come on, the creative thing is the most important. After all, if a show is just meh, no amount of promotion or tweeting will make it a hit. That’s where Shonda’s talent comes in. GREY’S ANATOMY is in its 9th season and still is the highest rated drama in the demo (with DVR included). That’s not an accident. It is still creatively quite strong. I don’t think anyone predicted that from all the freshmen drama smashes that premiered in the amazing ’04-’05 season, the last one standing would be GREY’s. I would have assumed HOUSE with its more procedural bent, would have lasted longer than a medical soap. It’s all to Shonda’s credit that it was GREY’s. She writes interesting character driven shows, plots them beautifully while still upping stakes and keeping fans interested.

If I were ABC, I’d be wanting to re-sign her Shondaland ABC Studios deal for as long as I could. There is no other Showrunner more in touch with the ABC audience. There is no other Showrunner more successful for ABC. She’s like a modern day Aaron Spelling. The difference here is her pen is attached to every ep of every show she creates and manages, which is even more valuable. People thinking her talent lies in only creating female skewing soaps definitely underestimate her. Frankly SCANDAL is a show that should appeal to men too. But she is a woman and she just happens to have a knack for writing and relating to ABCs core female audience better than most. GREY’s certainly has another season beyond this, but SCANDAL is clearly the Thursday 9PM anchor successor, eventually. And if I’m Paul Lee, I want to be in the Shonda Rhimes business. I want to be her exclusive home. I want first shot at every show she creates. I’m kinda surprised ABC hasn’t greenlit any of the Shonda produced scripts they bought this season, mostly the Issae Rae penned ”I Hate LA Dudes” sitcom. She’s another young creative voice that has made a big mark with a web series she created herself The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl. Under Shonda’s wing, she could be the next prolific and distinctive voice on TV like Lena Dunham, Tina Fey or you know, Shonda Rhimes. I know there are many variables to why a pilot or a show is greenlit or not, but If I’m Paul Lee, Shonda more than gets the benefit of the doubt.

Bottom line: It takes a number of things coming together to make a show a hit. In SCANDAL’s case, it’s a terrific leading lady, a fantastic cast, great promotion, clever social media ideas, water-cooler buzz, but above all- a brilliant and uniquely talented creator/writer/showrunner in Shonda Rhimes.

BigTVfan has been analyzing the business of show since September 2010. Visit his blog at or follow him on Twitter @bigtvfan.

For all the latest TV news and reviews