AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
TV show runner Shonda Rhimes is going for a hat trick at ABC. She already has two hit shows under her belt, with the long-running medical drama "Grey's Anatomy" and the operatic, Washington-driven "Scandal". Now Rhimes, one of network TVs most successful producers, is backing a provocative new series starring Oscar nominee Viola Davis.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER")
VIOLA DAVIS: (As Annalise Keating) I'm Professor Annalise Keating and this is Criminal Law 100, or as I prefer to call it - How To Get Away With Murder.
CORNISH: "How To Get Away With Murder," a drama from Rhimes' Shondaland Production Company debuts tonight. Now this means Rhimes has locked down ABC's primetime Thursday night programming. Here to talk about how it happened is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Hey there, Eric.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey.
CORNISH: Alright. So now Shonda Rhimes has a huge chunk of ABC's primetime block. How'd it happen?
DEGGANS: Well, you know, Rhimes is a prolific producer. And she's the creator of some of their biggest shows with young people, especially young female viewers - "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal." So when CBS got Thursday Night Football; it only made sense for ABC to turn all the Shondaland shows into a night of counterprogramming, and it's only increased Rhimes' visibility. I mean, she's already a rarity - a black, female executive producer in a town run by white men. And there's a sense that she's carefully built up her empire of shows to the point where she's now got two dramas in primetime starring powerful, black, female characters. That's something that's never happened in the history of television, let alone involving one producer. So we've got a great clip of her writing for Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope on "Scandal," and she's telling her boyfriend, a married President of the United States...
CORNISH: You know. (Laughter).
DEGGANS: About their toll their affair is having on her.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCANDAL")
KERRY WASHINGTON: (As Olivia Pope) You're married, you have children, you're the leader of the free world. You are away. By definition you're away. You're unavailable. I wait for you; I watch for you; my whole life is you. I can't breathe because I'm waiting for you; you own me; you control me; I belong to you.
TOM GOLDWYN: (As President Fitzgerald Grant) You own me.
DEGGANS: So much passion.
CORNISH: That's a lot of - probably more than we need. Now, Eric, there's already some drama actually surrounding the show with a recent review in the New York Times. Critic Alessandra Stanley wrote that Rhimes has, quote, "embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the angry black woman." She goes on - recasted in her own image and made it enviable. How'd that go over?
DEGGANS: Not too well. That piece was criticized by a lot of people, including the New York Times Public Editor. The writer didn't point out, for example, that "How To Get Away With Murder" wasn't created by Rhimes. It was created by Pete Nowalk, a producer, who worked on her other shows. And he's that series show runner. As the show runner, the top creative voice, on "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal," Shonda Rhimes has managed to get mostly white TV audiences to embrace her vision of a melodramatic, multicultural world in which gay characters, female characters and characters of color all have more visibility and power than we're used to seeing on television. And that just makes for a more vibrant and creative show, which also happens to look a lot more like America.
CORNISH: Now is part of the issue not that she's a black woman, but the fact that she's a well-known show runner, right? And there aren't that many sort of brand-name producers on network TV anymore.
DEGGANS: Yeah. That might be possible. I mean, once upon a time we had producers like "All In The Family's" Norman Lear, or "Dynasty's" Aaron Spelling, or "Ally McBeal's" David E. Kelly, and they were household names. You'd see their names featured in the opening credits to their shows, and they were serious powerbrokers in Hollywood. And now we've got fewer famous names like that in network television. You know, you think of somebody like "Family Guy's" Seth McFarlane maybe as the exception. And the spotlight has moved to cable TV show runners like "Mad Men's" Matt Weiner or "The Sopranos'" David Chase. Now Shonda Rhimes is special for a lot of reasons because she's the only person doing what she's doing, and she's doing it in a way that proves the value of fresh and diverse voices on TV. She's poised to become the backbone of one of the most important nights on major TV network, and it's all part of network TV's desire to find what works and replicate it. So if they can find a producer that knows how to draw an important audience and spread that sensibility around their network, then they've got a greater chance of sustaining strong ratings.
CORNISH: Eric, thanks so much for watching for us.
DEGGANS: Always glad to talk to you.
CORNISH: That's Eric Deggans. He's NPR's TV critic.
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