Thriving Ratings for a New Patient on ABC
By JOE RHODES The New York Times April 14, 2005
Even before this week's announcement that the medical drama "Grey's Anatomy," originally scheduled for only a four-week run, would remain in ABC's Sunday-night lineup through the May ratings sweeps period and for the rest of the season - bumping David E. Kelley's "Boston Legal" off the air until fall - Shonda Rhimes, the show's creator and an executive producer, was getting the feeling that her life was about to change.
"I started hearing from people I haven't spoken to since fifth grade," she said, asked if there had been any early indicators that "Grey's Anatomy," her first television series, would become such an out-of-nowhere ratings phenomenon. The program averages more than 17 million viewers a week, according to Nielsen Media Research, and the audience is increasing with each episode. That is 5 million more than "Boston Legal" drew in the same 10 p.m. time slot, following "Desperate Housewives."
"And then my mom in Columbus, Ohio, got a call from her congressman," Ms. Rhimes said. "So I knew there was something going on."
In the announcement that "Grey's Anatomy" would stay on the air, Steve McPherson, ABC Entertainment president, also said that "Boston Legal," a drama about lawyers starring James Spader and William Shatner, which is finishing its first year as a successful spinoff from "The Practice," would return next season with 27 new episodes, including five that were to be broadcast this spring. "Grey's Anatomy" had been in development at ABC since September.
Asked why the network would risk an unproven show like "Grey's Anatomy" in such a sought-after time slot, Francie Calfo, executive vice president for development at ABC Entertainment, said, " 'Boston Legal' had obviously caught on, the growing pains were behind it and we felt like it was a safe time to play around with the schedule a little bit."
"One thing Steve and I talk about every time we find a show we love is, 'Let's not blow it,' " she said. "Let's put it somewhere where we feel we can really launch it. And we thought this was the best opportunity."
Ms. Rhimes said that the large female audience for "Desperate Housewives" provided the perfect lead-in for her relationship-heavy show, focusing on a group of five struggling surgical interns at a Seattle hospital, three of them women, including the female title character, Dr. Meredith Grey (played by Ellen Pompeo).
Ms. Calfo said: "I think there was a need for this kind of show on our air, specifically a medical show. And Shonda found a twist on it that made it perfect for where we're at right now. Medical shows are hard, and it was hard trying to figure out where ours could be different. But where everybody else is speeding up their medical shows, she found a way to slow it down, so you get to know the characters. There's definitely a strong female appeal to it."
Ms. Rimes explained that "the idea of having a show about smart women who compete against one another was interesting to me." Commenting on the healthy ratings for "Grey's Anatomy," Steve Sternberg, a media analyst with Magna Global USA, said: "Roughly 80 percent of households during prime time only have one TV set on. People are looking for shows they can watch with other household members. And just as 'Desperate Housewives' reaches a broad audience - younger, older, male, female - so does 'Grey's Anatomy.' "
Officially, "Grey's Anatomy" has not been renewed for next season, although that announcement could come soon. ABC executives also emphasized that they had not decided which show would follow "Housewives" next season.
"Grey's Anatomy" and "Boston Legal" could also appear elsewhere on the schedule and ABC could use the slot, and its accompanying audience, to introduce another show.
"There's no way you can predict what will work best," Ms. Calfo said. "But we know we have at least two strong pieces, which is a great place to start."