— ABC is turning over its most valuable real estate to its proven hit-maker, Shonda Rhimes.
This fall, three hour-long dramas created by Rhimes will run back-to-back-to-back on Thursday night: "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal" and her latest creation: "How to Get Away With Murder," starring Academy Award nominee Viola Davis in the 10 p.m. slot. The move makes the idea of Shondaland, the name of her production company, a reality on the alphabet network.
Paul Lee, president of ABC Entertainment, touted Rhimes Tuesday as the "new president of entertainment on Thursday nights" as he pitched the network's upcoming season at Lincoln Center. The hour-long-plus presentation is part of the upfronts, an annual ritual where the broadcast networks put on splashy events to sell ad time to media buyers.
Advertisers usually pay a premium for commercial time on Thursdays as they try to influence weekend spending.
"I call her the Charles Dickens of the 21st century," added Lee, who is British. "If Charles Dickens was black and a woman."
The network — which is poised to end the season in fourth place among the advertiser-preferred demographic of viewers ages 18 to 49 — needs to field a strong new hit. This is the third year the network has finished fourth in that category among the Big Four networks.
But ABC should finish the season in third place among total viewers, averaging 7.5 million viewers in prime time. During the presentation, the network's late-night host Jimmy Kimmel poked fun at a slip that Lee made, claiming the network had been No. 1 for the last four years — he actually meant weeks.
"The ABC I work at is not in first place," Kimmel told the crowd. "In fact, we might need to crash on your couch."
Lee worked to highlight the network's achievements in social media, and downplayed its ratings woes.
"We still have work to do but we are finishing the season strong," Lee said.
The Disney-owned network still has its bright spots. It can boast that it reaches one of the most affluent audiences in television. It also delivers more women than any other broadcast network with its textured dramas that feature strong female characters. The network has positioned itself as the estrogen bookend to another Disney property — testosterone-heavy ESPN.
Seven of its entertainment shows regularly rank in Nielsen's Top 20 broadcast programs, most notably Rhimes' long-running medical soap "Grey's Anatomy." The show remains broadcast's No. 1 drama among viewers under 50, while Rhimes' "Scandal" is still keeping water coolers steamy. Also, "Modern Family" remains its comedy stalwart, while the Friday night reality show "Shark Tank" continues to have bite.
While its ratings decline in the 18-49 demographic versus last year is relatively modest 5% — compared with double-digit dips at CBS and Fox — advertisers are hoping that ABC's upcoming season can produce a hit.
"ABC really knows its core audience but the network has struggled a bit to expand beyond that," said Amanda Richman, president of the advertising buying firm Starcom USA.
Only two dramas are returning from this year's freshman class — "Resurrection" and "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." — and only one comedy — "The Goldbergs." The high number of misfires means a load of new shows for the 2014-15 season. Four new comedies and two new dramas will roll out in the fall, with an additional six new programs slated for midseason.
For fall launch, ABC will leave its Sunday and Monday lineups intact — with new hit "Resurrection" and veteran "Dancing With the Stars," respectively, as its pillars. Midseason will see "Resurrection's" slot give way to John Ridley's race-oriented story about a family coping with the aftermath of a home invasion in "American Crime."
"Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." will serve as Tuesday's anchor. The comic-book-inspired show will be joined by newcomers "Forever," a supernatural drama, and "Selfie" and "Manhattan Love Story," both comedies.
On Wednesday, the network's hit comedy "Modern Family" is expected to continue to shine at 9 p.m. "The Goldbergs" will change nights and move into the 8:30 p.m. slot before the Emmy winner next season. Meanwhile, the coveted post-"Modern Family" slot goes to the Anthony Anderson-led comedy "Black-ish," about a black family trying to retain their identity and heritage in a mostly white suburb.
With Thursday set as a Shonda Rhimes Night, new comedy "Cristela," from stand-up comedian Cristela Alonzo, moves into the Friday at 8:30 p.m. slot.
Tuesday also marked the last upfront presentation for Anne Sweeney, the president of the Disney/ABC Television Group, who announced earlier this year that she was stepping down after 10 years in the top entertainment post to become a TV director.
Sweeney thanked Walt Disney Co. Chairman Bob Iger, and then introduced her successor Ben Sherwood, the former chief of ABC News, to the crowd. Sherwood will take over ABC's entertainment networks next year when Sweeney steps down.