ABC came out top in the US freshman drama stakes last year thanks to a single showrunner and some clever marketing. Channing Dungey, ABC Entertainment Group executive VP of drama development, explains how the network is ‘eventizing’ its schedule.
To have three shows on air on a major US broadcaster is rare. To have them all on simultaneously, filling primetime back to back on one night of the week, is unprecedented.
This was the accolade ABC handed showrunner Shonda Rhimes for its latest fall season, scheduling Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and freshman legal drama How To Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM) one after the other on Thursday nights at 20.00, 21.00 and 22.00 respectively.
Grey’s, on its eleventh season, and Scandal, moving into its fourth, had already proven their credentials and so HTGAWM – starring Viola Davis as a maverick law professor who, together with her students, becomes embroiled in a murder plot – was a fairly solid bet. Creator Peter Nowalk was a Rhimes protégé who cut his teeth as a scribe on Grey’s and Scandal, but with ABC trailing in the network stakes it couldn’t count on pedigree alone.
“There’s no more exciting time than now to be in television, particularly in drama, because there are so many different places to explore that content,” says Channing Dungey, ABC Entertainment Group’s executive VP of drama development, movies and miniseries.
“The flip side, as a broadcaster, is it’s an incredibly challenging time. It used to be the case that all we had to do was look over our shoulder at basic cable, then premium cable. But now there’s everything else – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon – the whole nine yards.
“For us, as an ad-supported broadcast network, it is still so much about that linear same-day rating. So the question is always how do we get people in their seats, how do we get them watching, how do we make it feel like a priority?”
The solution was #TGIT – Thank God It’s Thursday – a scheduling strategy and marketing campaign based on the pioneering TGIF comedy block ABC introduced on Fridays in 1989, brought up to date with a Twitter hashtag.
Rhimes’ significant social media following and use of it to engage with her own fans, as well as active encouragement of the cast to do the same, was a significant part of the equation.
“Shonda Rhimes was one of the people who early on was very good about connecting with the fans, relating to them, and giving them the feeling that they were getting to peak behind the curtain,” Dungey says.
“We’ve done a lot of research, particularly into Millennials and the way they consume TV and watch content, and usually they’re working two or more screens at the same time. The idea of live-tweeting, which is something Shonda started doing with the Scandal cast and has now spun over to both Grey’s and HTGAWM, is that they will be tweeting at the same time that the show is airing. It makes the audience feel like they’re in dialogue with the cast.”
The success of what Rhimes had been doing with Twitter for Scandal was a contributing factor in ABC’s decision to contrive #TGIT. “As we were investigating what Scandal’s impact had been on the social media scene over the past couple of seasons, we had a real feeling we would be able to make this night feel like an event of television that couldn’t be missed,” Dungey says. “And we were right.”
HTGAWM delivered ABC its greatest drama success story of the 2014 US fall season. Indeed, it helped the network win the primetime ratings battle against its rivals in the 18-49 demographic every Thursday night in November – the first time it’s achieved such a feat in the 23 years since Nielsen records began.
The debut episode on September 25 proved the biggest hit of the US freshman drama crop, with 14.3 million viewers and a 3.9 rating, adding a record six million viewers on DVR playback in the subsequent three days, lifting it to a 5.8 rating.
These numbers pushed ABC towards its best Thursday night in five years, and the first nine episodes that comprised the fall instalment concluded on November 20 with another winner – 9.8 million viewers and a 3.1 rating, a 0.2 lift on the prior episode.
Tweets regarding the three shows numbered 5.3 million during the fall – more than those relating to NBC, Fox and CBS programmes combined – Dungey claims.
“It’s amazing how people are invested in those programmes and want to watch them live because they want to discuss them with their friends and be part of the conversation,” Dungey says. “Shonda has a way of telling stories where she likes to ‘turn over cards’ really quickly and you don’t want to miss any of those cards being turned over.”
Such storytelling has clearly been a gift to ABC, and the Rhimes triumvirate provided the perfect vehicle for the network to try out a wider initiative designed to pull in viewers. “We came up with a little word we like to call ‘eventize,’” Dungey explains. “That’s our in-house coin for making our show feel like a priority, a destination, trying to encourage the audience to watch live and same day.”
#TGIF was all about ‘eventizing’ through branding and social media, but ABC employs a three-pronged approach to the idea.
“Eventizing with talent” is about finding a calibre of artist, writer or director who wouldn’t usually get involved in the broadcast space, Dungey says. For example, Viola Davis, whose movie credits include Traffic, Solaris and Doubt, would only agree to be part of HTGAWM if the season went on for no more than 15 episodes per year, rather than the 22 or more episodes a network would hope for from a successful title.
The series that will replace HTGAWM in March this year is American Crime, created by John Ridley, who penned 12 Years a Slave’s Oscar-winning screenplay. It’s his first work in television. An anthology “trial of the century show” in which one case unfolds over the course of one season, “it felt for him like he could take that concept and unspool it over a certain number of episodes.”
Ridley wrote and directed the pilot as well as three other episodes of ABC’s planned 11 instalments –and with such a hot name on board, it was possible to assemble a cast including Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton.
As well as increasingly employing the split-season model that has proven so successful in cable (ABC saved the last six episodes of HTGAWM for a January 29 return through to a two-hour finale on February 26), the network is doing shorter runs. It calls this “eventizing with concept.”
“What we’re doing here is sort of the same thing HBO has done with True Detective,” says Dungey, citing Nic Pizzolatto’s critically acclaimed eight-episode crime drama, the first season of which aired a year ago starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson and had some of Hollywood’s biggest names clambering for leads in the second.
ABC is billing Secrets & Lies, its other new crime drama debuting in March, as a single-season, 10-episode show, throughout the course of which the crime will be solved. “The idea is to market it in such a way that you can’t miss a single episode because you want to be there for the big reveal,” says the ABC exec.
It’s an adaptation of an Australian series of the same name that comprised only six instalments but was “a little short” for the US network’s purposes.
“The other thing that enabled us to do, again like what HBO did with True Detective, was to get a cast who would not normally sign on to an American broadcast show because they don’t want to be tied down to the long contracts we usually ask of actors,” says Dungey, returning to the idea of eventizing talent.
Ryan Phillippe (Crash, Flags of Our Fathers, Damages) signed on to play the lead male role – a man accused of a killing a boy – and Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear, Natural Born Killers, Kalifornia) joined as the detective. “She did sign a long contract, so if the show succeeds we’ll be able to have her return and investigate a new case over 10 episodes for a following season,” Dungey says of Lewis.
Are such series set to become a more regular feature of the ABC schedule moving forwards? “It’s challenging because we’re so used to being on a 22-episode cycle and it is much more common in cable to have a shorter-run, close-ended type of show. But in terms of trying to lure the appropriate calibre of talent, we feel we have to be competitive in that way and a lot of the actors and actresses you really want to help drive your content will only sign on for 10 or 13,” Dungey explains.
While it’s a welcome development that so much movie talent is now prepared to work in TV, she concedes that the newer, more buzz-worthy distribution outlets are often where they wish to be seen. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ll be going through casting or calling an agent about an actor and they say, ‘No, they’re Netflix only.’”
Dungey says ABC’s calling card is that it is prepared to do many more shows – but surely its biggest calling card right now is Shonda Rhimes, who is clearly able to turn the cards more effectively than anyone.