Since it’s upfront week and ABC unveils its fall TV schedule today, the big news is that huge hit Grey’s Anatomy is moving to Thursday nights at 9 p.m. That means a collision course for CBS (CSI) and NBC (those “Must See” comedies) on what is regarded as the most competitive night of the entire week. Forget all that for a moment: if you want to know how screwed-up the network development process is, just listen to the woman behind Grey’s Anatomy (which had its season finale last night). Creator, executive producer and head writer Shonda Rhimes told me in a recent interview for Elle magazine that, despite the fact that the show is now a cornerstone of ABC’s primetime resurgence, she and parent company Disney, and Touchstone, the Disney TV division that produces the show, “had some hard times. I’m not even going to pretend that we didn’t. There was awhile when we didn’t have a time slot. There was awhile when we didn’t know when we were going to air.”
But even before Rhimes made the pilot, she said, every once in a while some exec “would say, ‘Can the women be nicer?’ Those people aren’t at the network now. My answer was always no, because that’s who they are.” The suits also expressed concern that the women on the show would be seen as promiscuous. “It’s interesting to write a show where our lead character unapologetically has sex however and whenever and with whomever she wants it,” Rhimes told me. “We started our pilot out with a girl bringing a guy home and throwing him out the next morning. And I remember being asked the questions, ‘Are you sure you want to do that? Is that the kind of thing a woman would do? Other women aren’t going to like that.’ But women actually found it very empowering to watch this woman throw this very gorgeous guy out of her house in the morning.”
Even Rhimes isn’t sure if she’s the first African-American woman to exec produce a primetime network series. (I’ve subsequently been told that Mara Brock Akil may have been the first with Girlfriends, which has been on UPN since 2000. Not a major network, but it’s a prime-time network series nonetheless.) “But I’m pretty sure about this: we’re the only network drama that has a writing staff that is more than 50% women.” About the writers, Rhimes says she wanted to read their original writing samples as opposed to their spec scripts. “I looked for people who have interesting voices. And then, really, it was about hiring people who I found were interesting enough to want to sit in the room with and debate the fate of these 10 characters on our show for a year, at the very least.” Oh, and here’s the best nugget of all: “I did not even realize for the first six months of the entire show that I could fire any of my writers if I didn’t like them. Honestly. I liked them tremendously so it never would have occurred to me. I just thought they were all family and were going to be with us for the duration. But then somebody asked me how everyone was working out. I went, ‘Really? We can fire them?’ It seemed shocking to me.” Ah, if only every boss had an attitude like that.