The enduring success of “Grey’s Anatomy” will never be repeated

The longest-running medical TV drama of all time has been consistently popular since launching in 2005. It was just renewed for an 18th season. …

Few things in pop culture are the same today as they were in the mid aughts. But Grey’s Anatomy is still airing on Thursday nights on ABC in the US, and it’s still one of the most popular series on US television. Now it’ll keep going for at least another year—the last of a dying breed of broadcast TV dramas.

ABC renewed the hit medical drama for an 18th season, Variety reported. Ellen Pompeo, broadcast television’s highest paid actress, will return to portray the eponymous Dr. Meredith Grey. Shonda Rhimes, who created Grey’s Anatomy in 2005 and continued to write for it until departing for Netflix in 2017, has said the show will likely stay on the air as long as Pompeo is game.

That’s probably because ABC would be happy to let it go on as long as possible. It remains one of the most-watched series on US television despite also being one of the longest-running scripted shows ever. The vast majority of shows never last 18 seasons—or anywhere close—because they’re canceled for poor ratings. But Grey’s Anatomy has been remarkably consistent after accounting for the drop-off of viewers across all of broadcast television in the last two decades.

Why Grey’s Anatomy is still so popular

It’s the highest-rated show on TV in the important 18-49 age demographic. The current season averages more than 15 million viewers per episode across TV and digital platforms. Grey’s Anatomy is also the second most popular streaming show in the world, behind only The Office in minutes streamed (39 billion) on Netflix in 2020. Most critics cite Pompeo’s well-rounded lead character, a diverse cast, and a smart blend of soapy elements with romantic comedy. It also harnesses the traditional medical drama to create a dependably popular series in an age when many shows struggle to stay on the air more than a season or two.

Viewing habits have shifted toward online platforms, and media companies have followed suit with their investments, moving money from what used to go into broadcast and cable TV production into streaming. Even Rhimes, one of TV’s most coveted producers (thanks to her work on Grey’s Anatomy, among other shows), now makes shows exclusively for Netflix. The result is a streaming landscape overflowing with new content, while traditional TV networks struggle to replicate the success they had with shows like Grey’s Anatomy in the 1990s and 2000s. For ABC’s parent company, Disney, and for most other entertainment conglomerates, streaming is the priority moving forward.

So in the rare event a broadcast drama can remain successful for several years, executives are more than willing to ride it as long as that remains true. TV ratings for Grey’s Anatomy have plummeted since it launched in 2005, but relative to the rest of television, it’s still incredibly strong. Last year, it was tied with Fox’s 911 as the second highest-rated scripted show on TV, behind NBC’s This Is Us. The only other TV programs that were rated higher were reality shows and National Football League games.

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