Social media hype fuels certain TV shows, including ‘Scandal’

How popular is a TV show?

Just a few years ago, it was easy to measure. Nielsen Media sampled households with special tracking devices, and the next day, TV networks knew where they stood.

Today? It’s a complex mish mosh because more people watch TV on iPads, on demand or on their DVR. TV executives now sift through multiple metrics to decide if a show is connecting with its viewers. Social media engagement can be a crucial factor, both during and after a show airs. Nielsen now even rates shows based on tweets.

Networks now interact with fans in multiple ways. NBC’s “The Voice” last May encouraged viewers to “save” a singer by tweeting their votes live. Bravo’s dating show “The Singles Project” relies on social media feedback to guide its cast members. Atlanta-based TruTV has teamed with Tumblr to glean material from the site for an upcoming show called “Hack My Life.”

Here are four shows that have used social media to fuel their rabid fan bases:

“Scandal” (ABC)

Status: Returns for fourth season at 9 p.m. Thursday

What it is: A juiced-up drama featuring a D.C. fixer and perpetually crazy presidential intrigue.

Average viewership: 12 million

Facebook likes: 2.6 million

Average tweets during an episode: 405,000

Why it works for social media: Creator Shonda Rhimes packs in so many ridiculous plot twists and soundbites into each episode, it's easy to miss what's going on if you step away for even a minute or two. Her fans love quoting the nuttiest lines in real time on Twitter, then post amusing memes — video tidbits with often wry commentary on them.

Ben Blatt, ABC’s executive director of digital strategy, said the show encourages actors to live-tweet, and many do so every week. This year, they are experimenting with Snapchat (where videos and photos disappear after a few seconds) because that’s where young folks preside. They also shoot a lot of video and photos during production and embargo those moments until the episode airs; then they show up on places such as Instagram. “Fans love that inside access,” Blatt said. “And we make sure they are more like smartphone photos than professional. It feels more authentic.”

“Pretty Little Liars” (ABC Family)

Status: In the middle of season four but on hiatus, with a Christmas special pending

What it is: Four women whose lives were overturned when their "queen bee" leader supposedly died. It's based on a book series by Sara Shepard.

Average viewership: 3.4 million

Facebook likes: 14.4 million

Average tweets during an episode: 675,000

Why it works for social media: In 2010, the author's existing Twitter fan base jumped on the TV show. "Our relationship with social media was born in a very organic way," said executive producer I. Marlene King. "We didn't seek it out."

Now when the show airs, “we have this giant social media Twitter party,” King said. “I’m always on when the show airs and talk to fans. I watch what they’re saying to each other, what they like, what they dislike. It’s a wonderful giant focus group.”

The show tries to design episodes that encourage viewers to watch live, which advertisers prefer. “We have a lot of OMG moments, jump-off-the-couch moments,” King said. “It creates event television. That has sustained our place in the ratings as well.”

“The Walking Dead” (AMC)

Status: Season five starts at 9 p.m. Oct. 12.

What it is: A mix of character study and horror in a post-apocalyptic zombie world.

Average viewership: 18.4 million

Facebook likes: 30 million

Average tweets during an episode: 576,000

Why it works for social media: During any given episode, a major character could die. "We call it collective mourning," said Linda Schupack, executive vice president for marketing for AMC. And even when one doesn't, there are plenty of cool zombie kills to gape over with friends.

AMC works hard to keep fans engaged even during the offseason, including an extended trailer released in July that has been viewed 9.5 million times on YouTube. Last week, the network asked people what their final post-apocalyptic tweet would be using the hashtag #finalpostFriday, which trended for three hours.

“Love and Hip Hop Atlanta” (VH1)

Status: Season three concluded Sept. 8.

What it is: Atlanta hip-hop players tackle love, pettiness and occasionally, business.

Average viewership: 4.4 million

Facebook likes: 3.6 million

Average tweets during an episode: 800,000, the most popular show in America in terms of tweets

Why it works for social media: Jerry Springer-style battles pop up almost every episode, which garner plenty of frenzied, judgmental tweets. Are scenes real or staged? Most fans don't seem to care.

Tom Chirico, VH1’s vice president of digital and social engagement, said after doing some online focus groups, the network this past season shifted the tone of its official Twitter feed from a bland marketer to that of a nutty super fan with special access to the cast. They also held a “social media boot camp” for cast members to help them build their own fan bases. The show saw a 50 percent spike in tweets per episode from season two.