ABC Won’t Rest Until Everyone Knows Scandal (and TGIT) Is Finally Back Tonight

Can its stars lure viewers who fled last fall?

After an excruciating eight-month hiatus for ABC, the network tonight finally gets to welcome back its TGIT lineup of Shonda Rhimes-produced Thursday-night dramas: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal (which was delayed until midseason due to Kerry Washington’s pregnancy) and How to Get Away With Murder. And ABC’s marketing department is making sure its viewers, who abandoned the network on Thursdays at 9 p.m. during the fall, return.

ABC’s fall replacement for Scandal, freshman drama Notorious, flopped immediately, averaging just a 0.9 rating in the 18-49 demographic, which is less than half of the 2.1 that Scandal brought in last season. It also drained the network’s usually robust Thursday-night ad revenue. (ABC’s Scandal-less Thursday prime-time lineup in November saw a 26.6 percent drop in gross spend for the evening versus last year, according to Standard Media Index.)

Yet, instead of pulling the show and substituting another series or even Scandal reruns, ABC kept Notorious in its place—and watched it dwindle to a 0.5 in its final airing.

An ABC source explained that while the network considered moving Notorious to another night, it was left with no other options because any alternate show (Quantico, for instance) would have been displaced again when Scandal returned in January and would have required additional marketing resources to announce each schedule change. Reruns of Scandal would have rated even lower than Notorious’ anemic numbers, added the source—as was the case last season, networks prefer to air a low-rated original episode than a repeat—so ABC opted to just ride out the bloodbath and hope Scandal could erase the damage come January.

“Look, it would never have been my first choice to go into my first fall season without TGIT intact,” said ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey. “So I’m very excited to have it back for midseason, and more important, I’m extremely happy about the creative in terms of Scandal, the finale of Murder and what we have coming with The Catch.”

“The viewers are passionate about TGIT, so to be able to get the night back intact is so thrilling,” said evp of marketing and CMO at ABC Entertainment Marla Provencio, who launched the TGIT (Thank God It’s Thursday) campaign in the fall of 2014, with the debut of How to Get Away With Murder. “Obviously Scandal has been off for a long, long time, so we wanted to create that anticipation and that excitement, and to see those three powerful women.”

Provencio created a new TGIT promo featuring the night’s three stars: Ellen Pompeo (Grey’s), Washington and Viola Davis (Murder). The spot debuted on Dec. 31 during Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest. “We wanted to put it in a place that was extra special, that we knew that would attract the biggest audience possible. And we knew that New Year’s Eve would be the perfect place for it,” Provencio said.

The network shot another version of the promo featuring The Catch star Mirelle Enos in place of Davis. It will run after How to Get Away With Murder wraps its season later this winter, and The Catch takes over its time slot.

Provencio has been running TGIT and Scandal promos during the network’s other shows that share audiences with TGIT. “There’s a great duplication of Black-ish to Scandal, Black-ish to TGIT,” she said. “We’re finding that there’s duplication with the other family comedies like American Housewife.”

The strategy includes a heavy social media push as well, because “there’s no one who does social better than Shonda and her team,” said Provencio. Today at 4:30 p.m. ET, ABC will be streaming a TGIT Facebook Live Q&A across all three show pages, featuring actors from each series and exclusive clips from Grey’s and Murder.

The network also partnered with Google for a TGIT campaign that encompasses several Google products and platforms, including YouTube, Google Play, Gmail and Waze.

Scandal had been initially set to premiere alongside Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away With Murder on Jan. 19. But two weeks ago, ABC announced it was delaying TGIT’s return by a week, to Jan. 26, so that it could air a preinauguration 20/20 special instead. The move gave Provencio and her team  additional time to spread the message.

“We always want to take advantage of anytime we have more time to promote something, especially when the 1st of the year is always a challenge to get people back into their normal pattern of viewing,” she said. “Its pushback only meant that if they came to it [last] Thursday and didn’t find it, they’re going to look for it. And we’re going to play into that and let people know, ‘We know you’re excited. There’s only one more week.'”

Scandal will only have 16 episodes this season, down from its usual 22, but Rhimes told reporters at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour that she had been lobbying Dungey for a shorter season even before Washington’s pregnancy was announced.

Dungey said she’s open to the idea of shorter Scandal seasons going forward.

“So much of it depends on how Shonda is feeling about the creative, and we’ve had some very, very preliminary conversations about how she sees Season 7,” said Dungey. “I think the bigger question for me is wanting to do the right thing by the show and for the fans. I would be open to a shorter season with fewer episodes if it felt like that was going to be the creatively strongest choice. But that’s really driven by Shonda.”

While ABC will nervously be pouring over the TGIT numbers on Friday morning, Rhimes told reporters earlier this month she’s not worried whether audiences come back for Scandal, because she no longer cares about ratings.

“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,” Rhimes said. “Also, ratings are not, as far as I’m concerned, real or true anymore.”