‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Showrunners Had to Fight to Get the Show on the Air Because 1 ABC Exec Just ‘Didn’t Get It’

In November 2020, Grey’s Anatomy — the longest-running primetime medical drama in TV history — will begin season 17 on ABC. After 363 episodes, the series still ranks as the number one drama among 18 to 34-year-olds and comes in at number two among adults 18 to 49. More than 15 million viewers tune in each week to watch the drama unfold at Grey Sloan Memorial. But according to showrunner Krista Vernoff, getting Grey’s Anatomy on the air wasn’t easy. She says they had to fight because ABC execs just “didn’t get it.”

Grey's Anatomy season 1 cast
The season 1 cast of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ | Frank Ockenfels/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

‘Grey’s Anatomy’ season 1 featured characters broadcast TV had never seen before

During a recent interview with Variety, Vernoff and Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes revealed what it took to get their show on the air back in 2005. Grey’s wasn’t like other shows at the time. The script featured characters that network television hadn’t seen before. The cast was diverse, and it featured powerful women who had a “defiant and joyful” approach to sex.

The original cast featured three black actors – Chandra Wilson (Dr. Bailey), James Pickens Jr. (Dr. Webber), and Isaiah Washington (Dr. Burke) – who were in powerful positions at the hospital. In the pilot, Ellen Pompeo’s Dr. Meredith Grey had a one-night stand with a man that turned out to be her boss, Patrick Dempsey’s Dr. Derek Shepherd.

Vernoff was the head writer for the first seven seasons, and she recalls the moment she realized how revolutionary Grey’s Anatomy was. When watching an episode early in season 1, it hit her just how unique it was that Grey’s wasn’t a procedure-driven medical show. Instead, it was about its characters.

“My whole body was covered in chills,” Vernoff recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, we thought we were making a sweet little medical show — and we’re making a revolution.'”

Krista Vernoff says one ABC exec just ‘didn’t get it’

The 2004-2005 TV season was a big one for ABC. They were making a big ratings comeback with their new shows Lost and Desperate Housewives. At the same time, Rhimes, executive producer Betsy Beers, and the Grey’s Anatomy team were creating season 1 “in a vacuum.”

They didn’t have a premiere date. And, there was no guarantee the network would pick it up after they finished shooting and airing the first 13 episodes. Vernoff remembers “getting noted to death” by then network president Steve McPherson. She says he gave them “pushback every step of the way.”

However, the head of drama at ABC – the late Suzanne Patmore Gibbs – fought hard for Grey’s Anatomy. She often clashed with McPherson, and Vernoff remembers it well.

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“He just didn’t get it; he didn’t like it,” Vernoff explained. “Honestly, I’m going to say, I don’t think he liked the ambitious women having sex unapologetically.”

McPherson resigned in 2010 amid a number of sexual harassment allegations. He disputes Vernoff’s claims and says he was the reason Grey’s Anatomy made it to air.

“I made the original deal with Shonda. I developed Grey’s Anatomy at the studio. I picked it up at ABC.” McPherson said. “As for defaming me again and again, I don’t know what to say other than it’s sad that anyone feels the need to spread lies about me.”

‘Grey’s Anatomy’ became a hit overnight

Despite their trouble at the studio, Rhimes and Vernoff were able to shoot their first 13 episodes. But Wilson says when they took a creative break around the Christmas holiday, she was sure that meant “we’re out of a job.”

After they shot the first 13 episodes, the writers were told to clean out their desks because there was no guarantee they would be back. When they finally got their premiere date of Sunday night, March 27, 2005, Pompeo revealed that ABC wanted to change the show’s name to Complications. Vernoff says they fought to keep Grey’s Anatomy exactly the way they wanted it to be, and the first episodes were a “labor of love.”

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“We fought for the right for Meredith and Bailey to be whole human beings, with whole sex lives, and not a network TV idea of likable,” Vernoff says. “You might not have been likable, but now you’re iconic.”

When the show premiered, it was a massive ratings hit. Pompeo says the fact that the numbers were so huge the first time the show aired was “a big f**k you to McPherson.”

Season 17 of Grey’s Anatomy premieres on Thursday, November 12 in a three-hour crossover event with Station 19.