Just two years ago a new drama graced the small screen with a compelling African American woman in a white coat as its lead. Olivia Pope, after a single ‘it’s handled,’ turned “Scandal” into a television phenomenon that’s still going strong today.
Not only is the show a phenomenal success, but its show creator and power-producer, Shonda Rhimes, has also become a renowned name in the television world, as well as making Thursday night the most anticipated day of the week. Wednesday, more popularly referred to as hump day, is no longer the last roadblock to the long awaited Friday and the weekend ahead; no it’s the one day standing in the way of “ShondaLand Thursday.” Thank God it’s Thursday.
Rhimes’ series of successful shows, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” have stimulated a reoccurring theme for primetime television for this 2014-15 season: more minorities and more women. There’s been a surge of both in the shows that have premiered on primetime this fall, both returning shows and new series. So how has Rhimes been an influential factor in the progression of the minority and female characters on major broadcast networks like ABC?
Though “Grey’s Anatomy” has been around for a decade already, the success of “Scandal” has arguably increased the possibilities for what the two demographics can accomplish on screen.
“Anytime something is successful that breaks away from what’s conventionally done, other people will try to copy it and take advantage of that success so yeah, there’s no question Shonda Rhimes has been influential,” said Darnell Hunt, director of the Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. “The things she’s done and the barriers she’s broken in her shows kind of opened the door for other people to try to do those things as well.”
The Bunche Center released the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report: Making Sense of the Disconnect last February regarding the 2011-12 season. The report notes that minority actors made up just 5.1 percent of the lead roles in broadcast comedies and dramas, which counted “Scandal” among the shows with minority leads. Women accounted for more than 51 percent of the lead roles in comedies and dramas on broadcast networks during 2011-12, once again “Scandal” was among the shows with a female lead. 4.2 percent of the comedies and dramas on broadcast were created by a minority.
The report says, “It’s worth noting that a sole minority show creator was responsible for three of these titles—“Grey’s Anatomy (ABC), “Private Practice” (ABC), and “Scandal” (ABC).”
That would be Rhimes.
“Shonda has changed the culture of television in that more and more people can turn on the television and see themselves,” said Kerry Washington to The Hollywood Reporter. “And the thing about her storytelling is that the humanity of her characters allows people to find the sameness in the differences.”
And though Rhimes didn’t create “How to Get Away With Murder,” she is an executive producer for the show and has contributed to its success due to its Thursday night spot behind “Scandal.”
As the report illustrates, prior seasons on primetime have had disproportionate representations of minority and female characters, two concepts Rhimes has mastered.
“The audience is largely women, and women want to see women,” Hunt said. “They want to see themselves. So not to have women actually seen on camera would be a huge mistake.”
It’s been paying off for ABC thus far with the trio of dramas all recieving a 2.4 rating or better with an average of at least 8 million viewers, according to Variety.
Hunt said the fact that viewers have taken an interest in these shows suggests that audiences are ready for diverse images like what’s been illustrated on primetime now, and the audience wants more of that.
“That’s why Shonda Rhimes has been so successful now, and once she has that first hit show, she’s able to develop other hit shows using the same formula,” he said.
Mary McNamara, TV critic and senior culture editor for the Los Angeles Times, noted that the diversity conversation is one that predates Rhimes but she has certainly been influential in changing the dynamic of TV. She said Rhimes also had a majority female writers room for “Grey’s Anatomy,” which is still a rare occurrence.
“It really comes down to the writer,” McNamara said. “That’s where the diversity really has to happen because that’s who’s telling the stories and network executives have to okay them. Most people like the stories that resonate with them personally.”
McNamara said one of the changes with this season is that TV is starting to tell a great variety of stories.
“Slowly but surely TV is experimenting with all sorts of forms and stories,” she said. “That’s the important thing, we get a reflection of American lives it’s not just one person.”
McNamara said she first noticed the change with Fox network’s “Sleepy Hollow,” which had three black leads.
Now you have leading minority characters with Rhimes’ shows, ABC’s “Black-ish” and “Cristela,” CBS’ “Stalker,” “The Mindy Project” on Fox and NBC has an upcoming political drama starring Alfre Woodard as the black-female president.
Oscar nominated actress Viola Davis, who plays the leading role on “How to Get Away With Murder,” made the move from film to TV because of what ShondaLand represents.
“It’s a brand and a world that was inclusive of people who look like me,” Davis told The Hollywood Reporter.
Davis has repeatedly mentioned in interviews that she wanted to be able to be seen as sexy, a trait she thought had yet to describe her considering her previous roles such as the elderly maid in “The Help.”
McNamara said with Davis and Woodard, you’re seeing two heavy hitting black actresses come to the small screen, which is another trend going in television.
Who knows if it’s because of Rhimes or purely because of the increasing opportunities for women and minorities.
“Whether the shows fail or succeed, it’s opening the doors for these new stories to be told, which is the important thing,” McNamara said. “Everybody’s lives are fascinating and we don’t want to narrow ourselves to focus on the 10 percent of whatever it is.”