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Shonda Rhimes says a room of ‘old men’ said ‘nobody was gonna watch’ ‘Grey’s Anatomy’

A group of surgeons wearing scrubs appear in a medical TV show.
Original cast members Chandra Wilson, from left, Ellen Pompeo, Justin Chambers, Sandra Oh and T.R. Knight appear in the Season 2 finale of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” which aired in 2006.
(Scott Garfield / ABC)
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“Grey’s Anatomy” co-creator Shonda Rhimes said that she got pushback from “a room full of old men” who doubted the success of her hit medical drama after first reading the pilot in the early 2000s.

Rhimes, who is also the small-screen mastermind behind “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Bridgerton,” recalled the exchange on Tuesday’s episode of podcast “9 to 5ish with theSkimm,” which she appeared on with her creative partner and fellow rookie showrunner, Betsy Beers.

Two women pose together at a red carpet event.
Shonda Rhimes, left, and Betsy Beers attend the “Scandal” 100th Episode Celebration at Fig & Olive in West Hollywood in 2017.
(Richard Shotwell / Invision / Associated Press)

“I remember getting called into a room full of old men, and they brought us in to tell me that the show was a problem because nobody was gonna watch a show about a woman who would sleep with a man the night before her first day of work,” Rhimes said about 13 minutes into the episode. “And they were dead serious.”

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“Grey’s Anatomy,” currently in its 19th season, ultimately debuted on ABC in 2005. The first episode memorably begins with Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) waking up in her living room, essentially strangers from a one-night stand. Moments later, she rushes off to her first day of her surgical internship at the hospital where Derek, a.k.a. Dr. Derek Shepherd, is revealed to be one of her superiors.

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Rhimes said she remembered thinking, “These guys don’t know anything about what’s happening in the world right now, but they’re the people making the decisions.” But the “painfully shy” screenwriter struggled with responding to the execs.

Rhimes and Beers said the “old men” asked them who would watch and relate to a show where the lead would get drunk and have sex with a stranger the night before her first day of a new job.

“I couldn’t help it, and I said, ‘That’s me, I did that. That’s absolutely me,’” Beers said. “What I didn’t say is that I was probably drunk when I came into work the next day.”

The room went silent, and the men “could not get out of that room fast enough,” Rhimes said, adding that the execs were “horrified” and didn’t know what to make of “these kinds of women.”

“And they couldn’t call me a slut to my face. ... They didn’t know what to say,” Beers said, adding that the moment cemented her and Rhimes as “ride-or-die” partners.

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The Shondaland founder told podcast hosts Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg that she later understood why the men were apprehensive about the pilot.

“It feels really obvious now, I think,” Rhimes said. “But at the time, you have to remember there had never been a show in which there was a lead character who owned her sexuality on network television. There had not been shows in which you saw three or four people of color in a room talking unless it was on a sitcom, without anybody else in the room. You didn’t see a lot of the things that we were doing.

“And I didn’t really think about them as being revolutionary,” Rhimes added. “I thought, like, ‘We’re just making a show that I want to watch.’”

Added Beers: “A lot of the idea came from that fact that there was nothing that seemed like us on TV at that point. There wasn’t even really that many shows with a female in a center part. ... That in itself was surprising.”

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