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Can Scandal's Return Help Resuscitate ABC's Season?

Shonda Rhimes says she doesn’t care about ratings

Scandal's wild season premiere kicks off with the results from last season's presidential election. Tony Rivetti/ABC

After a long hiatus, Scandal is finally returning to ABC—and not a moment too soon for the struggling network, which desperately needs the show's ratings and ad revenue boost after a difficult fall.

Scandal's Season 6 return was delayed until January to accommodate Kerry Washington's pregnancy. ABC's fall replacement in the Thursday 9 p.m. time slot, Notorious, was an instant flop in the high-profile time slot. The show averaged a paltry 0.9 rating in the 18-49 demographic—less than half of what Scandal brought in last season (2.1)—and bottomed out at a 0.5 for its finale.

Without Scandal, ABC fell to a 1.7 demo average so far this season (at this point last season, it was averaging a 2.0), behind NBC (2.7), Fox (2.0) and CBS (1.9). And the network's Scandal-free Thursday primetime lineup in November saw a 26.6 percent drop on gross spend for the evening versus last year, according to Standard Media Index.

But speaking at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif., executive producer Shonda Rhimes said she's not worried that Notorious' failure will dent the ratings for Scandal's return—because she doesn't think about ratings at all.

"I don't, and haven't for I would say seven or eight years, paid attention to the ratings because that's something I can't control. Also, ratings are not, as far as I'm concerned, real or true anymore, so that's not a thing I've ever paid attention to," said Rhimes.

As Scandal will air its 100th episode this season, "we're doing something that very few shows get to do anymore, which is to run this long and do it this successfully, so I'm happy, wherever we are," said Rhimes.

Scandal had been set to return alongside Grey's Anatomy and How to Get Away With Murder on Jan. 19. But yesterday, ABC announced that it was delaying the return of its TGIT lineup one week, to Jan. 26, so that it could air a pre-inauguration 20/20 special on the evening instead.

Rhimes said she was unfazed by ABC's scheduling move. "ABC does its programming. I'm not in charge of scheduling. I'm fine with whatever they want to do. I like to stay in my lane," she said.

Scandal's season premiere opens as the presidential election results come in, but that's just the first of many game-changing twists in the wild premiere. While the episode is packed with Scandal's signature jaw-dropping moments, the cast and actors said the show is breaking the mold in Season 6. This season, Rhimes "is taking the show in a whole, fresh direction," said star Tony Goldwyn.

"You really do have this beautifully different way of telling the season this year where we're really stepping back in time, and coming forward in time, and seeing things from different characters' perspectives. It's not really about crazy things happening to the characters and what crazy moments are happening. It's really about where they've come to after all this time," said Rhimes.

The executive producer also downplayed any parallels between her show, which is dealing with the handoff to a new president, and Donald Trump's real-life ascendancy to the presidency.

"I don't really equate the two. That's not really the goal," or she would have waited until after the election to write that storyline, said Rhimes. (Instead, Scandal's season premiere was filmed in July.) "I don't know that there are any similarities. I don't think that the candidates have any similarities to the candidates in real life."

Because of the production hiatus while Washington was on maternity leave, this season of Scandal is just 16 episodes, six less than its usual 22-episode season order. Rhimes was "delighted" by the opportunity to craft a shorter, leaner season, and said she had asked the network for shorter seasons last year, long before Washington announced her pregnancy.

With fewer episodes, "you don't have to tread water every once in a while. I think it actually made our storytelling more powerful," said Rhimes.

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