As creator and showrunner for "Scandal" and "Grey's," plus
executive producer of "How to Get Away With Murder" and new
midseason drama "The Catch," Ms. Rhimes has made her mark so far
with contemporary hour-long serials.
But ABC has just picked up a different kind of hour, a period
drama based on "Romeo and Juliet." Set in 16th-century Verona,
"Still Star-Crossed" explores what happens to the families of Romeo
and Juliet after the young lovers die. That means Ms. Rhimes will
have five shows on ABC next season, three of which were not created
by her, and her ambition doesn't stop there. Although ABC passed on
it late last week, ShondaLand had pitched a pilot for its first
comedy series, an entirely new genre for the company.
ShondaLand may also look beyond traditional TV for future
projects. "Network television has obviously been very good to me
and I love it, but there are a million other ways to tell stories
now that are out there that are fascinating and I think monetizable
and audiences can get really excited about," Ms. Rhimes said.
Smaller screens, the ability to release 15 episodes at once and
the flexibility to create episodes outside of the 30-minute or
one-hour window all appeal to Ms. Rhimes. She may even try her hand
at virtual reality. But she declined to elaborate further on any of
As ShondaLand grows into a hub for a plethora of voices creating
content for a variety of screens, Ms. Rhimes will have to balance
expansion with maintaining her recognizable, marketable voice. "You
can spot a Shonda Rhimes show from miles away," Mr. Thompson
ShondaLand's Impact on ABC
ShondaLand series have an over-sized impact
on ABC's gross rating points. Out of ABC's 15 scripted dramas that
aired this season, the four that come from Shonda Rhimes'
production studio make up 40% of the 18-to-49 GRPs. Average ratings
points in that demo for "Scandal," "Grey's Anatomy," "How to Get
Away With Murder" and "The Catch" add up to 7.2, compared with 10.8
for the other 11 dramas.
So even though both "Scandal" and "How to Get Away With Murder"
shed viewers, ShondaLand shows still bring in a disproportionate
amount of ABC's GRPs. (Contributing: Anthony Crupi)
Source: Nielsen, 18-49 live-plus-same-day average
ratings season to date.
"It has been really important to find shows that feel like our
brand, that sound like our brand, because I want audiences to
continue to depend on the fact that if it is a ShondaLand show,
they know what they are getting," Ms. Rhimes said. "You are not
going to wonder what this is going to be and be really disappointed
because we have jumped outside the box."
This dependability is attractive to advertisers, who are willing
to pay top dollar to be part of TGIT. Both "How to Get Away With
Murder" and "Scandal" are among the 10 costliest programs for
advertisers, according to
Ad Age's 2015 pricing survey. A 30-second spot in either
of the shows costs upward of $200,000.
Marketers are attracted to TGIT's upscale audience, which is
highly engaged with the shows on social media. The diversity of the
programming, both in casting and storylines, also appeals to
advertisers seeking content that better represents America.
Ms. Rhimes is intimately involved in creating integration
opportunities. "I actually feel like I pitch more stuff than the
network wants to use sometimes," she said.
While she surely isn't the first showrunner to have multiple
programs on a network at one time, Ms. Rhimes' name, more than even
some of the most prolific showrunners, has turned into a very
recognizable and marketable brand.
It makes a difference to say something is a Shonda Rhimes show,
said David Campanelli, senior VP-director of national broadcast,
Horizon Media. "You know the quality of the show and know what to
expect. It is easier to justify to a client betting on something
when you have a name like that to go with it. It is a name that
matters more than the show. That's rare and she is one of those
Ms. Rhimes has adroitly redefined gender, sex and race on TV.
The protagonists of her shows are powerful, flawed and incredibly
complicated women. Her nighttime soaps may not have the same cachet
as the broody serials over on cable, but her characters exude
antihero characteristics like Walter White's on "Breaking Bad":
It's never exactly clear who's wearing the metaphorical white hat.
Nor is Ms. Rhimes afraid to shed some on-screen blood, keeping up
with cable in that regard and earning her the label "character
murderer" among some fans.
In this way, Ms. Rhimes has upended the long-standing premise
that network TV can't compete with the creativity of cable. And for
anybody counting, more people watched "Grey's Anatomy" live last
week than the finale of the critically acclaimed "The People v.
O.J. Simpson" on FX live and in the three days after it aired.
Ms. Rhimes hasn't done this by setting out to purposely shock
people. Despite the monumental changes that have disrupted the TV
model in the 11 years since "Grey's Anatomy" debuted, Ms. Rhimes
hasn't deviated from her hit-making strategy. For her, staying true
to her creative process, and quite simply telling good stories,
supersedes any concerns over viewer fragmentation or cord
"I honestly feel like I've kept doing things pretty much the
same way," she said. "The secret sauce of the business that I can
offer is my creativity, and in order to keep my creativity alive
and fresh ... I have to pretend that no one is watching the show,
that there are no audiences, there are no ratings, I'm just telling
ABC introduced TGIT in fall 2014, harking back to the network's
wildly popular TGIF family comedy lineup of the 1980s and
By assembling ShondaLand's drama trio back-to-back-to-back, ABC
set out to convince viewers to not only watch three hours of TV,
but to watch them live and all on one network. That's no easy task
in the current environment.
To help it work, ABC has aggressively marketed the programing
block, playing up the OMG factor that drives social media
And Ms. Rhimes has helped fan the online conversation. Even
before Twitter ("Grey's Anatomy" debuted a year before the platform
launched), she was blogging with fans at the end of every
Now Ms. Rhimes, who boasts 1.2 million Twitter followers, and
the casts of her series interact with fans during the episodes,
host live viewing parties and experiment with platforms like
Periscope and Facebook Live.
It seems to be working: TGIT accounted for three of the top 10
scripted shows on broadcast among the 18-to-49 demographic last
"TGIT as a brand itself has become stronger than some cable
channels," said Andrew Kubitz, head of scheduling for ABC, noting
that ShondaLand shows have been a "perfect match" for the lineup.
And whether or not it was ABC's intention, TGIT has also become
synonymous with Ms. Rhimes.
While Mr. Kubitz was abundant in his praise for Ms. Rhimes and
ShondaLand, he was also careful to downplay TGIT's long-term
reliance on ShondaLand shows.
Of course, ABC will continue to bring in new projects from the
company -- ShondaLand's current deal with ABC is not set to expire
for another two years -- but Mr. Kubitz said there won't only be
ShondaLand shows on TGIT.
"We see Thursday night as a viewership opportunity, with either
couples or women by themselves who want to sit down and escape and
have fun and drink their red wine and have some popcorn," he said.
"Right now, Shonda shows are the ones that are resonating with that
[group], but that doesn't mean any other show we are developing now
or in the future can't fit within that TGIT brand."
Those new shows could even come from some of the leading ladies
in Ms. Rhimes' own dramas. ABC Studios recently signed deals with
Viola Davis of "How to Get Away With Murder" and Kerry Washington
of "Scandal" to develop new projects for broadcast, cable,
streaming services and digital platforms.
ABC certainly needs to find some new voices. While Ms. Rhimes'
shows carry their weight, they've suffered ratings erosion like
"Scandal" is down 28% in the 18-to-49 demographic this season to
date, while "How to Get Away With Murder" has plunged 37%. And "The
Catch," ShondaLand's newest entry, is averaging a disappointing 1.0
rating in the demo since debuting in March.
Ms. Rhimes said she doesn't follow the ratings of her shows. "I
stopped paying attention to the ratings, I would say, maybe a year
into 'Grey's' when I realized I have no control over the
ABC, on the other hand, is paying very close attention. It is on
track to end the season last among the Big Four broadcasters among
18-to-49-year-olds, averaging a 1.8 rating in the demo, down 18%
from last season.
The network didn't have much luck with its most recent freshman
series: Its now-cancelled "Muppets" reboot flopped despite
significant fanfare; "Blood & Oil" had its episode order cut;
quick cancellations for "Wicked City" and "Of Kings and Prophets"
left Tuesday's 10 p.m. time slot a mess; and even "Quantico" has
faded after a promising start. (It doesn't help that ABC lacks NFL
programming, one of the juggernauts of today's TV landscape.)
The network also made the decision last week not to renew
"Nashville," "Catle," "Galavant," "Agent Carter" and "The
ABC has renewed all four of Ms. Rhimes' current shows for the
Mr. Kubitz attributed ABC's ratings weakness in the 2015-16
campaign to the dramatic decline in viewership for returning series
across broadcast TV, as audiences try the cornucopia of new content
available not only on TV but on other platforms.
ABC brought back 24 shows this season, more than any other
broadcaster, so "we were more adversely affected," Mr. Kubitz said.
CBS renewed 22 shows, Fox brought back 15 and NBC renewed 13.
"But like with 'Grey's,' we have found [viewers] might go and
experiment elsewhere, but when you create consistent, great
content, you can bring them back, and that's what our goal is for
next season," he said.
Indeed, "Grey's Anatomy" is exhibit A for the promise of that
plan, having bucked the odds in the 2015-16 season to average a 2.2
rating in the 18-to-49 demographic. The show currently ranks as the
No. 2 returning broadcast drama in the demo, behind only the Fox
And while "Grey's Anatomy" is still down 7% in the demo over
last year, that counts as relatively stable when other returning
series have fallen by double digits.
The show's success owes in large part to a new generation of
fans discovering the series on Netflix and Hulu, according to Ms.
Rhimes. Viewers as young as 12- or 13- years-old, who weren't even
born when the show started, are watching over 200 episodes to catch
up and then tuning in live on ABC, Ms. Rhimes said.
Despite this phenomenon, Ms. Rhimes isn't thinking about how
people might watch her shows when she is developing them. "I am not
writing or creating for the binge-watching experience," she
Mr. Kubitz said he hopes the network can revive some of its
longer-running shows in the same way it has with "Grey's Anatomy."
There are also plans to lean heavily on the success of its family
ABC's next-season lineup, which it will detail at its upfront
presentation on Tuesday, is the first glimpse into the alphabet
network's programming strat- egy under Channing Dungey, its newly
appointed enter- tainment president. Ms. Dungey, who has been
credited with developing some of ABC's most successful dramas,
including those from Ms. Rhimes, replaced Paul Lee in February to
become the first African-American to head programming at a major
Ms. Rhimes has known Ms. Dungey since she was a "baby executive"
in the early days of "Grey's Anatomy."
"She is a person whose opinion I think very highly of," Ms.
Rhimes said. "I think it is wonderful to have someone like her in
charge because she is very creative, she is very smart, she has a
smart handle on what the audiences are looking for and she has been
there for a long time."
Ms. Dungey declined to comment for this piece.
ShondaLand, however, ultimately couldn't sell ABC on the sitcom
"Toast." Despite entering new territory for the company, the pilot
still felt like a ShondaLand show, according to Betsy Beers, Ms.
Rhimes' production partner. ShondaLand has been eyeing the comedy
genre for some time, and Ms. Beers said the company is committed to
establishing a presence in the genre.
"Still Star-Crossed," the take on "Romeo & Juliet," is also
a new path. "It's a very different show than we have ever had on
the air before," Ms. Beers said.
Both Ms. Rhimes and Ms. Beers continue to believe the TV model
"The idea that you can keep a crowd of people together and
breathless and then make them all wait another week while they
spend the week going, 'What do you think is going to happen?' --
which we all did while watching 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' -- is
still possible," Ms. Rhimes said.
Ms. Beers said there's an intimacy that occurs with TV "that is
very special and very intense and just very personal." And despite
the "doom and gloom predictions" of the death of TV, it is all
Still, Ms. Rhimes, who published her first book in November,
"Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own
Person," is excited about growing ShondaLand into a brand that does
more than "just make television shows."
One place you likely won't see Ms. Rhimes is leading a TV
network. "I can't ever say never, but right now I can't imagine the
idea of wanting to go work at a network because I don't want to get
behind a desk all day," she said. "That is not really where my
"I am busy exploring what that brand can be … and it is
definitely not just the idea that there will be more TV," she