Tuned In: ABC to fill out Thursday with another Rhimes show

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — ABC is the new NBC. And it’s the new CBS, too. That’s not a good thing for ABC.

For the 2013-14 TV season, ABC landed in third place among total viewers and fourth place among the key age 18-49 demo. Kiss the “CBS viewers are the oldest” jokes goodbye; sub in ABC.

For 2014-15, ABC is pinning its hopes on a lineup of diverse comedies — there’s one about an African-American family, one about an Hispanic family and another about an Asian-American family — and on showrunner Shonda Rhimes, who is the writer and creative force behind every series airing on ABC’s Thursday night this fall, including the returning “Grey’s Anatomy” (8 p.m. Sept. 25), “Scandal” (9 p.m. Sept. 25) and newcomer “How to Get Away With Murder” (10 p.m. Sept. 25).

Ms. Rhimes’ latest is another enjoyable gonzo show about a powerful woman — Philadelphia criminal law professor Annalise Keating (Oscar nominee Viola Davis) — surrounded by an ensemble of striving young law students.

Layered on top of that, there’s a murder mystery and the series flashes back and forth between the present and the future as it fills in the pieces revealing who died, who did the killing and why.

“We’re all doing our jobs and not thinking of it in terms of the night,” Ms. Rhimes said. “We have shows to make. I don’t think about the programming and ratings.  I don’t worry about those things.”

“How to Get Away With Murder” was created by “Scandal” and “Grey’s” veteran writer Pete Nowalk, who said the theme of the series is “no one is who they seem to be.” That appealed to Ms. Davis, who plays Keating as an authoritarian, unsmiling, tough woman.

“I love the fact she’s messy and mysterious,” Ms. Davis said. “She’s not necessarily the nurturing, ‘Come sit on my lap so I can take care of you, baby.’ She’s messy, she’s a woman, she’s sexual, she’s vulnerable.”

Ms. Davis said despite ample film roles, she was drawn to TV, which is no longer seen as somehow diminishing an actor.

“People migrate toward the material, especially after you reach a certain age or are a certain hue or a certain sex,” she said. “I have gotten so many wonderful film roles, but I’ve also gotten even more film roles where I haven’t been the show, where it’s like you’re invited to a really fabulous party only to hold up the wall. I wanted to be the show.”

As for the diversity in its schedule, ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee said it was a matter of authenticity.

“Specificity is so key to great storytelling,” Mr. Lee said. “You can smell if something is specific. … It’s as much about culture as it is about race. We all can relate to the story of how much do we keep our culture and how much do we become a part of the main.”

Mr. Lee said the wealth of diversity in one season is due in part to more diversity among TV executives behind the scenes.

What went unsaid: “Scandal,” with an African-American female lead, became a hit. TV tends to copy whatever succeeded in the immediate past.

 MTV enters ‘Virgin Territory’

MTV’s explored the lives of “Teen Moms” after they've been “16 & Pregnant” and now the youth network is going into “Virgin Territory” (11 tonight) for a docuseries about teens deciding whether to lose their virginity.

“You expect to see virgins on MTV like you expect to see Snookie and Jwoww on ‘‍Meet the Press,’ ” acknowledged MTV programming president Susanne Daniels. But a recent survey MTV commissioned found 75 percent of young adults wished movies and TV did a better job of exploring why teens are virgins.

Sarah Brown, CEO of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, said the survey also found many young adults feel having sex makes people seem cooler and more popular than those who decide to wait to have sex.

“This offers an opportunity to present a more balanced, nuanced and textured picture of a generation that is being more careful,” Ms. Brown said. “Sex has meaning, sex has consequences, and I think that’‍s become a little more widely shared in the culture.”

Of the three teens MTV brought to press tour — two young women, one gay man — the two women said religion played a role in their decision to wait. The guy just seems like he couldn‘‍t find anyone to have sex with him.

“I love talking about sex. I’‍m not having it, though I want to talk about it,” said Alec Melger. “Abstinence isn‘‍t for me. I was just so grateful to be able to share my story.

”I think in our media, sex is everywhere, you can’‍t escape it,“ he said. ”You can't really do anything about it, but it does put a lot of pressure on young people to have sex. You need to make your own decision. We don‘‍t get comprehensive sex ed in schools for the most part, and we have all this sex in the media.“

As for how the show defines ”virginity,“ potentially a tricky subject, Mr. Melger said there is no one definition.

”It’‍s a very individual definition,“ he said. ”For some people virginity might be intercourse. For some people it‘‍s anything above kissing. I view it as this thing you lose a little at a time with each thing you do. It’‍s completely just based off what you believe. You’‍ll see on the show everyone has their own definition of it.“

‘Constantine’ changes

NBC’‍s Friday night comic book adaptation “Constantine” (10 p.m. Oct. 24) is among the fall series doing recasting before it airs. But in this case, the change seems particularly odd because the pilot totally builds up the female lead as a significant character. Now she‘‍s just ”a procedural drive-by“ as one critic noted.

In the original pilot, demon hunter John Constantine (Matt Ryan) gets paired with his best friend’‍s daughter to travel the country and battle supernatural terrors. And he vows to protect her.

The pilot will air but with one reshot scene that helps explain why he‘‍s no longer protecting the friend’‍s daughter, Liv (Lucy Griffiths, “True Blood”), why she’‍s not along on the journey.

A new character from the comic book “Hellblazer,” Zed (Angelica Celaya), will join the cast in episode two.

NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke said network executives and producers didn’‍t love the father-daughter relationship dynamic with Constantine having to watch over his friend’‍s daughter. They also felt getting her out of the way would allow more flexibility in story, including allowing Constantine to have romantic relationships with women (producers plan to draw from the early comics before Constantine became bi-sexual).

The show’‍s producers offered their own explanation for the casting switch.

“Pilots are a bit of a litmus test,” said executive producer David Cerone. “When we sat down and were looking at the episodes ahead, Liv is a great character but she’‍s very wide-eyed and reactive. She doesn’‍t have powers.”

But Zed does have psychic abilities and a dark past.

“She’‍s someone who can go toe-to-toe with John,” Mr. Cerone said. “We wanted a more dynamic relationship as opposed to a teacher-student thing. We just wanted a strong man and a strong woman.”

If “Constantine” sounds familiar, it’‍s because it was already adapted for the big screen in 2005 starring Keanu Reeves as the title character.

One thing fans of the comic book shouldn’‍t expect to see: Constantine smoking cigarettes a lot. There’‍s one scene of him stubbing out a cigarette in the pilot and producers indicated while smoking will be shown in the future it won’‍t be glamorized (i.e., it will not be shown a lot).

Syfy gets back to sci-fi

After many years of more down-to-earth, fantasy-based shows, Syfy seems poised to return to space with its December event series “Ascension” (Nov. 24).

In addition, the network is readying “The Expanse,” a space opera for 2015 that a network executive described as Syfy’‍s “biggest space-based series since ‘‍Battlestar Galactica.’‍ ” (Terry McDonough, a veteran of “Breaking Bad” and “Suit,” will direct the “Expanse” pilot episode.)

In “Ascension,” it’‍s 1963 and President Kennedy has sent 600 men and women on a 100-year covert space mission to settle a new world. (It’‍s inspired by the military’‍s real-life Project Orion.)

Now, almost 50 years after the show’‍s launch, there’‍s a murder aboard the Ascension that causes the ship’‍s population to question the mission. Brian Van Holt (“Cougar Town”) and Tricia Helfer (“BSG”) star in this event series, which could continue if it is successful in its first run.

“It feels like a cruise ship,” said executive producer Jason Blum. “Essentially the ship is like a time capsule, another civilization that continued for 50 years parallel to our civilization.”

Ms. Helfer said much of the culture reflects the early 1960s.

“Brian and I play a married couple, and as the wife, I’‍m definitely the woman behind the man more than we would see in our society here on Earth today,” she said.

‘Frozen’ fans take note

Stars from Disney Channel and Disney XD perform a new pop arrangement of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from the Disney movie “Frozen” in a music video that will air at 9:20 p.m. Sunday on Disney Channel. This will follow Friday night’s Disney Channel programming hosted by snowman Olaf (voice of Carnegie Mellon University grad Josh Gad) and a sing-along of “Frozen” songs Saturday, 8-10 p.m.

Channel surfing

Bravo renewed “Southern Charm” for a second season and “Million Dollar Listing New York” for a fourth season. Bravo also ordered “Million Dollar Listing San Francisco.” … Reports suggest Yahoo!, which recently revived “Community,” is considering a revival of canceled Fox comedy “Enlisted.” … FX’s “The Strain” drew a healthy almost 3 million viewers in its debut Sunday night.


A portion of this column originally appeared online in the Tuned In Journal blog. Post-Gazette TV writer Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour. Follow RobOwenTV at Twitter or on Facebook. You can reach Rob at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com.

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