There are few sure bets in television—unless you're talking about Shonda Rhimes. The uberproducer is overseeing four shows this season under her ShondaLand production company. She is creator and showrunner for hits Scandal and Grey's Anatomy, while also executive producing last year's freshman smash How to Get Away With Murder, as well as a new midseason drama, The Catch. ABC has once again given Rhimes an entire night of programming—its wildly successful TGIT (Thank God It's Thursday) lineup—which last year accounted for three of broadcast TV's top 10 scripted shows in adults 18-49, and three of ABC's top four shows in the same demo.
When ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee told Adweek earlier this year that ABC's successful season was only partly due to Rhimes, Jimmy Kimmel took him to task during May's ABC upfront, noting Lee's statement was "kind of like saying the success of Thriller is only partially due to Michael Jackson."
As she prepares for the Sept. 24 season premieres of her three fall series, Rhimes talked with Adweek about building her TV empire, which of her shows "absolutely" has to end and what she really thinks about TGIT.
Adweek: When you transitioned from writing movies to TV, did you think there would one day be a ShondaLand?
Shonda Rhimes: From the beginning, people would say, "What do you want to do?" and I would say, "I want to take over the world through television." And it was kind of a joke, and everybody would laugh, but if you say something enough, it starts to feel true. I always felt like, "I'm going to have a show." And then I thought, "I'd better have another show, because what if that show goes off the air?" I think it was Season 7 or 8 of Grey's that it might have occurred to me that I was doing OK, and maybe I could start doing more.
Grey's Anatomy is entering its 12th season. How do you keep things interesting for yourself?
To me, since Season 5, every year of Grey's is a completely different show. From the moment George [O'Malley, played by T.R. Knight] died, it's a completely different show the next year. And then everybody gets shot, and it's a completely different show the next year. Then the plane crash. … So that's how I keep it interesting for myself. Every year I throw out what the old show was, and, except for the fact that there are medical cases, it's a completely different show.
You used to say that unlike Grey's, Scandal has more of a limited lifespan. Has your thinking changed now that Scandal is such a big hit?
No. Scandal absolutely has to have an end point. There are shows that can go on forever. To me, Grey's has become a sprawling novel; it's like the Girlhood to [the movie] Boyhood. I've been watching this character [Meredith Grey, played by Ellen Pompeo] grow up for the last 11-and-a-half years, and I want to see what happens to her. But Scandal is a limited story. I am not watching [Kerry Washington's character] Olivia Pope grow up. I am watching a specific moment in time, and I feel like in order to tell the story correctly, you have to end it.
Last year, how much pressure were you under when ABC launched a whole night of programming around you, and the TGIT marketing campaign?
None. That's not my job. I don't have anything to do with that. I think it's so funny because people were like, "It's the whole night!" And I was like, "I've had three shows on the network before. They weren't on the same night, but it's happened before. I'm not that stressed about it." I completely understood that everybody else felt like it was a big deal, and my whole job was to not take that in.
In August, you said that you would never again be a showrunner for three shows at the same time. So does that mean you'd have to end one of your shows if you created and wanted to run a third series?
I don't know, because the final year, when I was doing Scandal and Grey's and [Grey's spinoff] Private Practice, I actually had a great time. But there was just a brutality to it, and I don't know if I could do that again.
You are one of a handful of producers, like Greg Berlanti, Ryan Murphy and Julie Plec, who oversee multiple TV shows. The networks now feel like a Shonda-produced show is a safer bet than one with a big star.
I think audiences are brand loyal, one. And two, showrunning is not as easy as it seems; I learned very quickly. It is not an art that is taught as much as you think it is. Now that the television industry has exploded and there are 300 percent more television shows than there were, looking for writers, looking for everything else, it's hard out here. Everybody's employed, so there's not as many people to pluck and find. So I think it's just a safer bet.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.