Will Musical Episode Lift 'Grey's Anatomy'?

6:00 AM PST 03/31/2011 by Lesley Goldberg
ABC
"Grey's Anatomy"

On Thursday, ABC will air its heavily hyped episode, centering on Tony-winner Sara Ramirez's Callie Torres.

Grey's Anatomy has long been a springboard for musicians. Now, as ABC prepares to roll out its musical event, the network hopes that music will return the favor.

On Thursday, the medical drama will air its heavily hyped episode, centering on Tony-winner Sara Ramirez's Callie Torres, who experiences her surgery following a near-death car crash through such songs as Brandi Carlile's "The Story" and Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars." Both tracks, like others in the episode, has been featured — and boosted — in past Grey's episodes.

The music event comes as the long-running drama has struggled to lure eyeballs in its ultra-competitive Thursday 9 p.m. time slot. In its seventh season, Grey's is averaging 12 million viewers, down considerably from its high of more than 22 million during the show’s third season, according to Nielsen. But, the medical drama still consistently wins its time period in the adults 18-49 demographic, drawing a 3.6 rating for last week's episode.

"It's natural for a program on that long to start getting a little frayed around the edges," says Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media. "And It's not surprising that Grey's may do something a little different to create some buzz and rise above the clutter: 'Don't forget us, we're Grey's Anatomy.’ “

The ratings dip reflects a larger broadcast trend, where at ABC viewership is down 10 percent among the advertiser-beloved 18-49 demographic this season. It also comes amid an executive shake-up under new entertainment president Paul Lee, who this month let go of scripted development chief Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs.

Though musical episodes historically generate buzz, they haven't always translated to big ratings. Attempts by Fringe's spring 2010 musical episode in 2010 and Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer airing in 2001 failed to goose viewership.

In Grey’s Anatomy’s case, Adgate anticipates a ratings spike, though he says it's unlikely to have a long-term effect. "What you try and do is stem the decline as best you can, and this is a way to do that," he says. "It's pretty hard to change the trend lines for a show that's been on this long."

It took a live performance by the show's star Kevin McKidd for the network to sign off on the idea, which was written by showrunner Shonda Rhimes.

“The network executives couldn't picture it,” McKidd told The Hollywood Reporter during a recent set visit. “The easiest way Shonda felt to do that was to present a portion of it. So we put a band together to play this live gig with narration in between the songs of a very sketched out early version of [the episode]."

McKidd, who played the guitar while he and his musician friends performed “Chasing Cars” and Gomez’s “How We Operate,” says “It was actually kind of scary, [but] it was cool to be involved at that level, that very early stage.”

Co-star Jessica Capshaw, who performs KT Tunstall's "Universe & U" on the episode, is similarly apprehensive. “There were many times where I felt like, ‘Oh my gosh, we're doing the best episode of Grey's Anatomy ever,’ she told THR. “And there were other times where I thought, ‘Did we drink the Kool-Aid and we're all terrible?’ ” 

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