When Netflix announced they had signed a multi-year deal with Shonda Rimes in the summer of 2017, critics overreacted as if this was the end of her deal with ABC. Last month, Rimes declared that nothing could be further from the truth. At the Television Critics Association winter press tour, she said “I think there’s a misconception… It’s not like we’re going to pack our bags and take some boxes and march someplace else at a set time. We’re here.” That’s good news for ABC since Rimes is currently providing their entire Thursday primetime line-up: Season 4 of the Emmy Award-winning "How To Get Away With Murder," Season 7 of "Scandal" and the bedrock of it all, Season 14 of "Grey’s Anatomy."
Rimes’ first monster hit, "Grey’s Anatomy" has been on the air since 2005, meaning it predates Facebook opening its platform to the public as well as the creation of Twitter. Most shows that last this long are, by the 14th year, running on autopilot. Yet somehow, "Grey’s Anatomy" continues to land solid ratings week after week. Last year, Nielsen ranked Season 13 one of the top 10 most-watched shows in the all-important 18-49 age demographic, ending the year averaging 7.5 million viewers a week, and 9th in overall watched shows. Compare that to "This Is Us’s" first season last year, which ranked 5th overall and brought in an average of 9.8 million viewers.
That "Grey’s Anatomy" is still competing at this level alone would be remarkable, but this year the trend is moving upwards. Since it returned with the mid-season premiere in January, the last two weeks have garnered 8.6 million and 8.9 million viewers respectively, and it continues to dominate across the board in all female demos. That’s a big accomplishment, considering that broadcast networks’ viewership has been steadily declining year to year over the last decade. (This is due to a combination of oversaturation of small screen entertainment, plus changing viewing habits as more “cut the cord” on cable.)
So, how is "Grey’s Anatomy" doing it?
Most shows that last this long are, by the 14th year, running on autopilot. Yet "Grey’s Anatomy" continues to land solid ratings week after week.
Most would assume it’s the format. Hospitals have been easy fodder for television drama since 1963’s "General Hospital." But where modern primetime medical soaps like "ER" (which made it to Season 15) run out of gas after a decade or so, "Grey’s Anatomy" just got locked in for two more seasons. It’s a bit like "Friends" finding new life on Netflix, except, in this case, Shonda Rimes and company are still making new episodes. But more than the hospital setting, "Grey’s Anatomy" is succeeding by leaning into its demographic and focusing on stories about women, by women, for women. Importantly, writers have emphasized telling diverse stories that highlight progressive values of gender equality in all formats.
This hasn't always been the strategy. Back in the mid-aughts, "Grey’s Anatomy" presented itself as a series about a young intern, Meredith Grey, who was still figuring out how to be an adult, her bestie Cristina, and the men she was caught between. (The “caught between two men trope” was popularized in 1999 by "Dawson’s Creek." By 2005, it was practically mandatory for female leads with “agency.”) That the show happened to sport a racially diverse cast was merely a bonus.
But 14 years later, men have mostly disappeared from Seattle Grace Hospital. Star Ellen Pompeo recently noted that after on-screen lover Patrick Dempsey’s exit, nervous ABC execs “felt like they had to get a penis in there.” But their replacement, Martin Henderson, failed to fly, “so that ended.” Instead, the show now focuses mainly on the women who have outlasted all the drama, love triangles and medical mysteries: Pompeo’s Meredith Grey, Chandra Wilson’s Miranda Bailey and Jessica Capshaw’s Arizona Robbins anchor the show. This is a winning formula because it is so blatantly targeting a large and loyal female audience. Women make the show and women star in it. And who the hell needs men, anyway?
"Grey’s Anatomy" is succeeding by leaning into its demographic and focusing on stories about women, by women, for women.
So as President Donald Trump's administration tries to roll back social progress in real life, on the small screen "Grey’s Anatomy" pushes these issues to the forefront with appealing authenticity. So in contrast with a White House where women are pushed out of leadership roles, "Grey's Anatomy" trumpeted how star Pompeo and producer Rimes banded together to guarantee Pompeo the salary she deserved. The message was clear: the show would continue based upon Pompeo’s wishes, not the whims of ABC execs.
The highly rated mid-series premiere also happened to be an episode centering on domestic violence and its complicated, subtle emotional effects. The episode was entitled “1-800-799-7233,” the number of the National Domestic Abuse Hotline. Not a subtle move necessarily, but that’s kind of the point.
Similarly, while Trump attempts to remove rights for transgender individuals, "Grey’s Anatomy" loudly doubles down on its commitment to both racial and gender identity diversity. No longer just a bonus factor, this diversity has become a selling point. Not only is there a new series regular character played by trans actor Alex Blue Davis, but later this season, there is a planned multi-episode arc on the subject of transition surgery featuring noted trans actress and activist, Candis Cayne.
"Grey’s Anatomy" is not the only "Shondaland" series adopting this strategy, for the record. "Scandal," which is in its last season, has at times seemed like a more salacious West Wing, with plotlines involving a scandal-plagued, Bill Clinton-esque male president, his Hillary-like wife and even some Bernie Sanders-like promises for universal college education.
Replacing “Scandal” is a "Grey’s Anatomy" a spin-off series, the show’s second after 2007’s "Private Practice," which lasted six seasons. Set at a nearby firehouse, the new offering will be called "Station 19." The trailer, which arrived this week, highlights female firefighters, as do the promotional images, hinting at a show very much targeting that familiar female audience. Rimes isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here; she already knows how successful a female-centered, progressive-values promoting show can be. And if "Grey’s Anatomy" continues to keep up with the times, and Pompeo is game, Rimes’ show may run another decade before we even realize it.
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.