How Shonda Rhimes Is Taking Over Prime-Time TV

Annalise-KeatingPhoto: Courtesy of ABC.
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Olivia Pope has lots of memorable lines, but here's a favorite: "I’m very good at what I do. I am better at it than anyone else. And, that’s not arrogance. That’s a fact.” In this case, she's talking to President Fitzgerald Grant, but she could just as easily be describing her creator and the head of television’s newest empire, Shonda Rhimes.
Since her first series Grey’s Anatomy debuted in 2005, her shows have not only become pop-culture phenoms, but runaway ratings successes. And, now, her takeover is reaching new heights: Tonight, How To Get Away Murder, starring two-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis, will join Anatomy and Scandal on Thursday nights, giving Rhimes the entire prime-time block on ABC. This is a feat that no other show runner — male or female, black or white – has ever achieved in TV history.
Pope's quote also makes a more accurate opener than Alessandra Stanley's recent boneheaded line about "angry black women" that's rightly ignited such a furor. Because Shonda isn't successful "for a black woman" — she's just monstrously successful.
Scandal consistently wins its time slot with an average over over 10 million viewers. Rhimes' crowning achievement, Grey's Anatomy, is even more impressive. In 2006, the season three premiere was watched by 25.41 million people. Live. That’s right; not only did 25.41 million people sit down and watch the same show at the same time, which is something that is practically unfathomable now, but that number came without the assistance of “live plus 7” time-shifted viewing (a.k.a. DVR watching) data that is now used to help pad all TV shows’ ratings.
And, her takeover is about more than just numbers: Rhimes’ four series have amassed a staggering 44 Emmy nominations and six wins since she started in TV nine years ago. She’s also gives actors such as Ellen Pompeo, Sandra Oh, Katherine Heigl, and current It Girl Kerry Washington arguably the best roles of their careers. Rhimes’ dynamic monologues have turned into a stylistic calling card that viewers look forward to very week.
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So, how exactly is Rhimes achieving these sorts of feats when, as Business Insider reports, there is a 50% decline in broadcast TV viewership since 2002? There are three simple reasons Rhimes is the queen of prime time:
la-et-st-abc-fall-lineup-how-to-get-away-with-murder-20140513Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
1. She Is A Master Of Plot
Masters of Sex is stylistically similar to the slow-paced Mad Men. Ray Donovan has been criticized for continuing the antihero tradition of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos without building on it. Both Homeland and House of Cards were dinged for seemingly going off the rails after great beginnings. Even the stellar True Detective had its detractors with its hyper masculine tragic heroes and trippy, philosophical dialogue. Simply put, a lot of critically acclaimed television series are starting to look and sound the same. That’s not the case with Rhimes.
Her shows are broader and so fast-paced that ABC’s promos warn viewers to not tune even one minute late to a Rhimes’ TV show, otherwise they risk missing a major plot development or the dynamic acting and instantly quotable dialogue — read: every monologue recent Emmy-winner Joe Morton (Rowan Pope) has given on Scandal. Rhimes focuses less on trying to impress her peers and more on creating highly entertaining and cliffhanger-heavy fantasies, she keeps audiences coming back for more. Case in point: long-in-the-tooth Grey’s Anatomy is gearing up for its 11th season.
use me 1Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
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2. Her Shows Embrace An Amazing (And, Realistic) Diversity
It's been called "The Scandal Effect" and it's changing the way TV shows get cast. In an era when big shows (this year True Detective and Girls, again) get taken to task over their lack of diversity, Rhimes keeps bucking the trend. She's been at it since back in 2005 when she cast Sandra Oh, an Asian woman, as a fully fleshed out character on Anatomy. And, it works: 37% of Scandal's viewers are black, and its wide appeal has been credited for the show's success.
In an age when nearly every show is available to anyone with an Internet connection, it's easier to only watch whatever TV appeals to you. To get Shonda numbers, you need to appeal to everyone. (Oh, and yes, it's also just awesome and refreshing to see TV shows filled with diverse and interesting leads.)
useePhoto: Courtesy of ABC.
3. She Ignites Passions, In Real Time
There are more series on air than ever, and yet the TV viewing audience is dwindling. This is where social media becomes integral to a show’s success. Rhimes approved Washington’s idea to have the Scandal cast live-tweet episodes — a move had a huge effect on building the show’s rabid fan base. And, as Deadline notes, the results were impressive. By the end of Scandal’s third season in the spring of 2014, the show added 3 million more viewers. In the highly coveted 18-49 demo, viewership went up a whopping 43%. This data proves the power of trending hashtags and having actors get into real-life discussions with the fans, so that audiences feel connected to the series in a way they never have before. But, it’s not just social media. After most episodes of Scandal, someone from the cast like Kerry Washington, Tony Goldwyn, or Bellamy Young will make an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live and discuss what happened on the episode that just aired. This not only keeps the conversation going, but instills this “fear or missing out” mentality in viewers, so they will want to keep up with Scandal in real time so they can watch their favorite cast members talk about the episode later that evening, deepening their emotional investment.
The jury’s still out on how the legal drama Murder will do in the ratings, but if Rhimes has anything to do with it, the show will be must-see TV.
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