Scandalous sizzle or fizzle?

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Thursday nights have gotten hot. And I’m not talking about the weather. Thursday is when viewers can tune into ABC’s new drama “Scandal.” The show revolves around the life and work of a powerful and professional crisis manager who left the White House to create her own successful, take-no-prisoners image consulting firm.

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Even if you weren’t one of the 1.8 million African-Americans (out of a total of 7.3 million total viewers) who tuned in to “Scandal’s” premiere on April 5, surely you’ve heard the buzz about it. ABC heavily invested in a full-court press of broadcast (radio and TV), print and online promotion. And for African-Americans in particular, the concept of the program has many Blacks puffed up with pride and pleased to welcome the program to the nighttime drama line up for several reasons.

1) “Scandal” was created by an African-American woman, Shonda Rhimes, who is also the creator of the long-running, award-winning ABC hits, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice.”

2) It stars an African-American woman, Kerry Washington, as Olivia Pope and

3) The program is inspired by the life of a real-life former White House aide, Washington PR powerhouse and image-fixer, Judy Smith, who is also African-American.

This was a historic triple-win for Blacks. And I’ll bet you’re just dying to know how the ratings shaped up, so let’s take a look.

More than 7 million viewers (7.329 million to be exact) watched the show. The 1.88 million Black viewers who tuned in placed it firmly in second place as Black viewers’ choice for all shows that aired on network and cable the week of April 2–April 8. It placed ahead of “Dancing with the Stars” (ABC), which had 1.82 million Black viewers, “The Game” (BET) with 1.79 million Blacks watching, “American Idol” (FOX) with 1.57 million Blacks and “Let’s Stay Together” (BET) with 1.49 million. It also outpaced

“Basketball Wives” (VH1) and “Real Housewives of Atlanta” (BRAVO), which had 1.40 and 1.39 million Black viewers, respectively. The only program “Scandal” didn’t beat out was the “NCAA Basketball Championship” (CBS), which had 2.85 million Black viewers.

Since the show centers around an African-American woman lead, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that of the 1.82 million Black viewers 1.3 million of them were women. As The State of the African-American Consumer Report notes, African-American women make up 64 percent of the U.S. labor force compared with 60 percent of other women, and Black women tend to be the primary decision makers for most household purchasing decisions. This is relevant because marketers like to know that they’ll attract a consumer demographic segment if they directly appeal to that segment. “Scandal” is, according to Rhimes, the star and the inspiration, a show for women. And the Newsweek/Daily Beast reports, Rhimes, Washington and Smith all felt “a tremendous responsibility to offer characters that differ from the regular negative portrayals of African-American women, particularly on reality television shows.”

As you can see from the ratings above, “Scandal” beat out standard favorites and reality shows the first week. But what about week two? Well, not so much. Black viewers tuned in higher numbers for “The Game” (2.01 million), followed by “Dancing with the Stars” (1.99) and “Real Housewives of Atlanta” (1.87), with “Scandal” dropping to 1.74 million Black viewers.

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, African-Americans watch 40 percent more television than any other group and prefer live programming with sports, drama and reality shows being the most popular. And, these numbers reflect that trend. But, the second week’s lower “Scandal” numbers don’t coincide with the outcry I often hear from Blacks about the need for “quality programming with positive images.” It’s been 37 years ya’ll since an African-American woman has held a starring role in an hour-long primetime network dramatic series. Not since 1974, when ABC starred Teresa Graves in “Get Christie Love” has a Black woman held that honor. So, if ABC and Rhimes are bold enough to give Blacks what we “say” we want, wouldn’t one expect that the number of Black viewers to increase and not decrease each week?

Each column, I ask you to consider carefully how you use your consumer power. Advertisers and marketers make their decisions based on it. Broadcasters base their programming decisions on it. And by “it,” I mean what you prove you want—through your actions, spending patterns and viewing habits—instead of what you say you want. If you don’t support quality shows they could disappear, for say, another 37 years. And that truly would be scandalous.

(Cheryl Pearson-McNeil is senior vice president of public affairs and government relations for Nielsen. For more information and studies go to http://www.nielsenwire.com.)

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