For Shonda Rhimes, a TV empire built on high drama


“How to Get Away with Murder”

10 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25, on ABC

For Shonda Rhimes, Thursday is Thursday. For much of America, Thursday might as well be renamed Shondaday in recognition of the TV savant’s prime-time conquest.

As if the back-to-back helping of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” weren’t enough Rhimes-stamped drama, ABC is adding a third series from Shondaland, her production company, to its Thursday prime-time lineup: “How to Get Away With Murder.” The legal thriller, which stars Oscar nominee Viola Davis, will close out the night in the 10 p.m. slot beginning Sept. 25.

“I think everybody else thinks it’s a bigger deal than I do,” Rhimes said by phone from an undisclosed location where she was “staring at an ocean that is not the Pacific Ocean.”

“I know it’s an incredible amount of trust that’s being placed on me, I get that. … But I’m not really thinking about, ‘Oh, I’m the Thursday queen.’ Uh, no. I’m thinking, ‘“Grey’s” has to be good, “Scandal” has to be good, and “Murder” has to be damn good.’”

The high-level drama block has been christened “TGIT” (Thank God It’s Thursday) by ABC’s entertainment president, Paul Lee, in a nod to the network’s Friday night TGIF comedy block — and in some ways calls up NBC’s past glory days on the night with Must-See TV.

“It’s pretty extraordinary and historical,” said “Scandal’s” leading player, Kerry Washington. “And it’s important. And fabulous. And to be celebrated. I don’t think Twitter is ready.”

In giving Rhimes the key to Thursday, which remains a lucrative night as film studios promote weekend releases, the alphabet network is acknowledging how big a draw her name has become with her patented style of traditional procedural meets emotional roller coaster — and showing that it sees her as a vital figure in helping them crawl out of a three-year spell in fourth place in the advertiser-preferred 18-49 demographic. Last year, ABC Studios/Disney, the network’s sister studio, closed a multimillion-dollar, four-year deal with the producer.

It won’t be the first time the 44-year-old has had three shows on ABC — in addition to “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” Rhimes created the latter’s sudsy spinoff “Private Practice,” which ended last year after a six-year run. Of course, not everything she has touched has turned to gold. She served as a producer on 2011’s “Off the Map,” a medical drama set in the jungle that was quickly canceled.

NBC has Dick Wolf, Fox has Seth MacFarlane and CBS has Chuck Lorre (the latter offered this advice, but to ABC: “Stay out of Shonda’s way!”). But in an industry largely run by white men, the rapid rise of an African American woman as one of the most powerful TV show makers is an important marker.

One would never suspect that Rhimes wasn’t someone who grew up on television, said longtime producing partner Betsy Beers.

“Her grasp of the language, the world, the storytelling and the ability to put characters forward is something she has mastered,” Beers said. “She’s got a very big brain, and she has the ability to absorb things around her that interest her. She does it in an intense and focused way — she will sit down and watch an entire series over a weekend.”

It should be noted that, unlike on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” Rhimes is not the creator of “How to Get Away With Murder,” a sexy legal thriller in which Davis plays a criminal defense professor who gets entwined in a murder conspiracy with four law students from her class. Peter Nowalk, a pupil of the Shondaland academy as a writer and producer, came up with the concept. Rhimes serves as an executive producer and self-proclaimed dragon-in-waiting.

“When Pete needs me to come out of the cage and yell at somebody, I will come out of the cage and do what he needs me to do,” she said, noting such instances usually occur when dealing with Broadcast Standards and Practices.

Rhimes has created is an empire that is home to characters of various minority groups, which has fueled both praise for the advancement it helps stir and criticism for what some deem superficial representation. “Scandal” stands as the first network television drama since 1974 with a black female lead character.

“It would be nice to feel like that was not a question anymore,” Rhimes said. “It’d be nice to feel like we weren’t constantly having every discussion from the perspective of a white male. ‘Cause that’s what that is. … I don’t know when that’s going to stop. But it’d be nice for it to stop at some point.”