The Next Aaron Spelling? Showrunner Shonda Rhimes Is ABC’s Queen of Prime Time

Taking charge of ABC's full Thursday night lineup

The pilot of then-unknown hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy was nearly complete in early 2005, but some real heavy lifting remained. Shonda Rhimes, a screenwriter who was taking her first stab at creating a television series, needed to put together synopses of the next eight episodes, telling executives at ABC just where the soapy, hospital-based drama intended to go in the near future. James Parriott, a veteran showrunner who’d been brought in to help steer the ship, offered to take half the workload. They only had a weekend to finish, he remembers, which would’ve been a tall order even for a seasoned TV writer. 

 Photo: Joe Pugliese/August Images

Rhimes politely said thanks but no thanks to her colleague, whose credits include hit cable and broadcast programs like Covert Affairs, Sons of Anarchy, Ugly Betty and Dark Skies. Parriott didn’t force the issue with Rhimes, but he says he awaited a frantic Sunday afternoon call asking for a bailout. It would’ve been completely understandable coming from a TV novice under that kind of pressure. While the 11th hour plea never came, Monday morning did, along with rapid recaps of Episodes 2 through 9 for a series that would become a massive prime-time success.

“In that small amount of time, she had written these brilliant, witty, wonderful one-page summations—and not just fast, but good, really superb,” Parriott recalls. “I knew right then that she had it.”

His heavy oversight—network-mandated for an unproven showrunner—became mostly a light touch after that, even though Rhimes had only a single TV credit at that point, as co-writer of HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. “It’s always difficult to know,” Parriott muses. “Some feature writers never adjust to TV because the format and pacing are so different, but she learned it so quickly. By Season 2, she was running the show without me.”

And hence, a legendary TV producer was born. From Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes launched hit spinoff Private Practice, which ran for six seasons, overlapping with her current watercooler smash, the Washington, D.C.-set Scandal, which just ended its third season with its best ratings ever in total viewers and the coveted 18-49-year-old demographic.

Come fall, she’ll launch another hour-long drama, How to Get Away With Murder, which ABC describes as a “sexy, suspense-driven legal thriller” starring Viola Davis, making up a three-hour Thursday block with Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. It’s little wonder that ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee dubbed Rhimes “the Charles Dickens of the 21st century” during the net’s recent upfront presentation, a nod to her prolific output and stature in the industry. He added the caveat: “… if Charles Dickens was black and a woman.”

Lee tells Adweek: “Shonda is one of the great storytellers of our time. No one delivers the emotional power and roller-coaster ride of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal like Shonda. She’s at the very top of her game, and we have no doubt that she’s setting a standard on ABC that others will be trying to emulate for years to come. We’re thrilled to be in business with her.”

It’s a huge bet for the third-place broadcast network, stacking up Rhimes’ shows on the most valuable night of the week for big-spending marketers like the movie studios, retailers and automakers. Meanwhile, ABC Studios just renewed a deal reportedly valued at eight figures with Rhimes’ production company, Shondaland. The extension will keep Rhimes, a Golden Globe winner and Emmy nominee, in the ABC/Disney fold through mid-2018.

That should give Rhimes some talking points next week when she’s due to give the commencement address at her alma mater, Dartmouth College, where she majored in English literature and creative writing. (Who knows? There may be a few budding Hollywood players—aspiring to Rhimes’ lofty position in Tinseltown—in the graduating class.)

None of Rhimes’ successes surprise Parriott, who says she has “become more confident” and developed “a certain executive quality” while remaining the friendly, down-to-earth person she was when she was new to the medium, fresh off writing teen-targeted movies like Princess Diaries 2 and Crossroads.

In addition to her being decisive, another of Rhimes’ strengths, Parriott says, is that she surrounds herself with talented people, like great writers and her producing partner and right-hand exec Betsy Beers. Having those in place help her balance her heavy work responsibilities with time with her young daughters. 

8 p.m. Grey's Anatomy just lost longtime star Sandra Oh

this past season; 9 p.m. Kerry Washington helped build

Scandal's audience on the back of social media; 10 p.m.

How to Get Away With Murder, starring Viola Davis, rounds

out the night. |  Illustration: Gluekit; Photos. Davis and

Washington: Craig Sjodin/ABC; Oh: Ron Tom/ABC

today’s aaron spelling

While her envelope-pushing storylines are completely modern, Rhimes’ influence conjures memories of network-defining TV producers of days past, says Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “Shonda Rhimes is becoming the Aaron Spelling of the new century,” he says, recalling that writer-producers like Spelling (The Love Boat), Stephen J. Cannell (The Rockford Files), Garry Marshall (Happy Days) and Norman Lear (All in the Family) wielded significant power, owned entire nights of the week in prime time and helped build network brands in the ’70s and ’80s. “That Rhimes is managing to be a network broadcast auteur in 2014 is kind of remarkable,” says Thompson.

For a more contemporary comparison, she’s in league with Dick Wolf (Law & Order) and Chuck Lorre (Two and a Half Men). She’s not without missteps—her travelogue/medical show Off the Map lasted only four months, and a few pilots didn’t get picked up. That said, her programs, though not considered prestige dramas like AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad, draw affluent female viewers, the heart of ABC’s audience.

By all accounts, Rhimes (who declined to speak for this story) has near free rein on the creative direction of her shows but still has to battle for some of her signature sizzle—those torrid moments between interracial lovers Olivia (Kerry Washington) and Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) in Scandal, for example. She reportedly doesn’t fret over nitpicking notes from her bosses—in fact, the network brass doesn’t bother to even give them anymore.

It’s easy to understand the network putting so much stock in Rhimes. After all, she could well solve the network’s 8 p.m. problem on Thursdays, also known as “the dead spot” as nothing lives there for very long (e.g., Zero Hour, and a reboot of Charlie’s Angels). For years, no new show has caught on in the time period Grey’s Anatomy will now occupy. The drama about bed-hopping, quick-quipping doctors is going strong headed into its 11th season (it’s regularly among the top 20 Nielsen programs) and likely will help ABC draw bigger ratings across the entire night, says Darcy Bowe, vp, media director at Starcom USA. “They’re putting a show with a proven fan base at a time that they’ve really struggled,” she says. “It makes a ton of sense.”

And fans who like Rhimes’ shows in all their eyebrow-raising glory needn’t worry about any switch in time slot. Rhimes responded recently to concerns over a tamer Grey’s Anatomy slated for the so-called “family hour,” tweeting: “To those who ask, I have no intention of changing content of shows for time slot moves. Next question.”

Advertisers appreciate Rhimes’ shows precisely because they are buzzworthy and often watched live so fans can be part of the social chatter around them. “People are really engaged with this programming, and that’s where advertisers want to be,” notes Bowe, who cops to being a dedicated fan of both Grey’s and Scandal. “They’re the kind of shows where people don’t want to go to work the next day and not know what happened.”

And what does happen can be outrageous, from having Scandal’s president of the United States (played by Goldwyn) murder a Supreme Court justice to staging yet another car crash involving mass casualties or natural disaster on Grey’s. The fact that Rhimes’ shows act as a melting pot—featuring loads of ethnic diversity, along with a mix of gay and straight central characters—also appeals to marketers looking for a better reflection of the real America on TV, as Bowe points out.

Known to audition a diverse roster of actors for roles in her series, Rhimes had envisioned a petite blonde like Kristin Chenoweth as the hard-nosed Dr. Miranda Bailey in Grey’s Anatomy, for example. The part would end up going to Chandra Wilson, an African-American actress who snagged four Emmy nominations for her work on the series.

socially savvy

In addition to crafting addictively over-the-top storylines with her writers, Rhimes has been particularly successful at stoking the flames of social media, creating a blueprint for the rest of the industry. The networks don’t have pockets deep enough or airtime abundant enough to heavily promote every show. That’s where savvy producers with their own social media-based campaigns come in, whipping up fans who crave behind-the-scenes extras and inside information.

Rhimes has excelled at that game from early on, notes Marc Karzen, CEO of social media analytics firm RelishMIX, by launching her own—and hyperactive—Twitter feed, hosting live viewing parties and pulling in cast members for chats with fans. “She’s writing the playbook for the future,” Karzen explains. “She’s really taken the bull by the horns—she engages with the fans and drives the conversation.”

For Scandal, a midseason replacement that launched in 2012 to less-than-stellar reviews initially, Rhimes identified and cultivated an audience via Twitter, Karzen points out. The buzz that flowed from that steady stream of digital chatter (the show generated more than 200,000 tweets per episode) helped grow the program’s viewer base.

The numbers for Scandal, a cliffhanger-happy melodrama that took off during Season 2 to become a must-see hit, are impressive. The show’s Facebook followers swelled 174 percent over the last year to 2.3 million, while Rhimes’ own Twitter audience grew 67 percent to 631,000. Washington’s Twitter account jumped 83 percent to 1.6 million followers, and the actress’ Facebook count grew by 1,790 percent to 2.9 million, per RelishMIX data.

Based extremely loosely on the professional life of Beltway crisis manager Judy Smith, Scandal just ended the season with its highest ratings yet. The season finale in April pulled in 10.6 million viewers, up 39 percent in total audience and 43 percent in adults 18-49 versus the previous season. It will have a tough head-to-head rival next season in NBC’s hit The Blacklist, which moves to Thursdays as NBC tries to shore up the key night as well.

Hopes are high for Rhimes’ new 10 p.m. show, How to Get Away With Murder, which snagged one of the highest-profile stars of pilot season in two-time Oscar nominee Davis. Written by Peter Nowalk, the drama centers on ambitious law students and their possibly shady criminal defense professor who get tangled up in a murder plot. In typical Rhimes fashion—she’s executive producing with Nowalk and Beers—there are strong female characters, a multiethnic cast and plenty of Internet chatter.

Considering its A-list star and creative imprimatur, Bowe has no doubt why it’s such a hotly anticipated fall entry. When she and other media buyers watched the pilots for Grey’s and Scandal the first time, they were hooked immediately.

“I couldn’t believe I would have to wait months to see those shows,” remembers Bowe. “Her shows are very character-based and character-driven, and it’s all intricately woven together in a way that just sucks you in. It’s unpredictable, it’s escapism, and it keeps you engaged week after week.”

And that’s just how Rhimes would want it.