Dissecting 'Grey's Anatomy'

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- With the fall season well under way, Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg casts a critical eye on some of TV's new and continuing series to help marketers determine which may be the best showcases for their ads and products. This week the fifth episode of this season's "Grey's Anatomy" will air, and some are asking if the show is nearing a "jump the shark" moment.
Ellen Pompeo stars as Meredith Grey. Have her character and the series lost their way?
Ellen Pompeo stars as Meredith Grey. Have her character and the series lost their way? Credit: Scott Garfield/ABC

"Grey's Anatomy"

Where/When you'll see it: ABC, Thursdays at 9 p.m.

What You'll See: Is ABC's leading medical drama in need of a few nips and tucks? After throwing some puzzling storylines at viewers over the last two seasons, a feeling has begun to take shape that "Grey's" is getting a little sloppy in its story surgery.

In just two seasons, rabid fans of the drama -- the most expensive for advertisers this fall, according to an Advertising Age survey -- have seen a man blow up all over Meredith Grey, who also died over the course of a three-episode arc and then came back to life. That's sort of a far cry from the clever and appealing sex-and-a-scalpel show viewers came to know and love when "Grey's Anatomy" made its debut toward the end of the 2004-2005 TV season.

At first, the title character was at the show's center. Meredith has suffered a tough family life -- a demanding, job-obsessed mother and an absentee father -- and made one poor romantic choice after another, even as she strived to become a great surgeon like her mother had been. Grey was -- and is -- a difficult character to like. She makes horrible social choices that defy the expectations of viewers who typically demand happy endings in neat story packages.

Toward the end of last season -- and the start of this one -- a sense has emerged that Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) is no longer in the middle of the action. The storylines focus more heavily on Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl, riding high on the popularity of the summer hit film "Knocked Up") and the affair she is having with a married George O'Malley (T.R. Knight).

The show has also been diminished by the loss of actor Isaiah Washington, who played intense surgeon Preston Burke. While Mr. Washington clearly put his foot in his mouth in the midst of a mini-scandal surrounding his on-set behavior, the program has yet to put someone in his place who can display that same kind of quiet intensity. Also of concern: Several of the program's top producers -- including creator Shonda Rhimes -- are also hard at work on the "Grey's" spinoff "Private Practice."

On an episode-by-episode basis, "Grey's" viewership is slipping this season. Its Sept. 27 episode, the second this season, attracted about 21 million live viewers, according to Nielsen. But last year's second episode brought in about 25.4 million. Last week's episode attracted about 18 million live viewers, compared with about 22.1 million in the previous season. DVR viewing may be a factor here, but it's still cause for concern as "Grey's" goes up against "CSI" on CBS.

This isn't to say that "Grey's" has gone ashen. The program still has wonderful characters, heartstring-plucking medical oddities and, often, the best and most shocking last five minutes of any hour-long drama on network TV. But as programs age, producers are often forced to abandon the original themes and ideas that drove their shows in the first place, and rely instead on hoary storylines and ratings-grabbing gimmicks. Hopefully, "Grey's" can stay away from that kind of triage.

What's at stake: "Grey's Anatomy" is a huge success story for ABC, which relied heavily on "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" when the medical program first launched. ABC has been able to successfully move the medical drama from Sundays to Thursdays, one of the most competitive evenings on TV, and still keep viewers intrigued. Other networks also put their best fare on this night, all the better to attract movie studios, retailers and others who want to drive consumer behavior for the weekend. Keeping "Grey's" relatively healthy is also important for the success of "Private Practice," at least until the new program gets through its season.

Who's on board? "Grey's" top sponsors in the 2006-07 season included Toyota Motor Corp., AT&T, Procter & Gamble, L'Oreal, General Motors, Ford Motor, Verizon and several movie studios -- the typical assortment of advertiser for a program that reaches a broad demographic.

Your ad here? No question, "Grey's" tapestry of offbeat humor, plot surprises and famous cast is a big lure for marketers who have messages for the masses. But "Grey's" has to keep its storylines on target and not do so many silly stunts in order to keep the machine running.

Media buyer's verdict: "Grey's" isn't ready for a "Do Not Resuscitate" order. The ratings falloff "is slight," said Barbara DiMaria, senior VP-national broadcasting director at Interpublic Group's Martin Agency. "I can understand why people are having some concerns with the content and the storylines. It's really easy to identify with the characters, and when you see things that characters are doing that you wouldn't necessarily do, then it's harder to relate."
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