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March 25, 2016

Shaping Shondaland

Growing up, she soaked in the get-up-and-go of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and That Girl. Now she's a power behind one of television's most prolific production companies.

Ann Farmer
  • Betsy Beers

    Rocco Ceselin
  • Mireille Enos, Peter Krause, The Catch

    Courtesy ABC
  • The Catch

    Courtesy ABC

Betsy Beers vividly recalls that on the first day of shooting the pilot for ABC's Grey's Anatomy, "there was a lot of concern that the interns looked messy" — even though that was exactly the look that creator Shonda Rhimes was aiming for.

"When you walk into a hospital, there's not a lot of hairspray," Beers says. "We wanted them to look like real doctors." 

Hair and makeup assistants rushed in to tidy up the actors, but Beers wasn't having it. "I messed them up and put them back on camera," she says, "and I'm glad I did."

As an executive producer of Grey's Anatomy — now in season 12 — as well as Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and all other Shondaland productions, Beers oversees development and day-to-day operations. But her most urgent task, she says, is to cover Rhimes's back, especially when she can't be there to articulate her creative concerns.

"Shonda has a strong and clear vision. Nothing makes me more happy than to execute it," says Beers, who officially partnered with Rhimes in 2008, when they began developing additional series with other writers.

Beers also provides that unflinching support to Shondaland's ever-expanding stable of writers. She helps them crystallize their concepts. She pitches their ideas. She shows up to castings and editing sessions. She runs interference between the studio and network.

She does whatever it takes to shepherd a project to the finish line, as recently happened with Shondaland's newest ABC series, The Catch. Mireille Enos, who stars with Peter Krause, plays a fraud investigator whose own heart falls prey to chicanery. "It's pure fun to watch," says Beers, describing it as glamorous and fast-paced. "It's in the vein of The Thomas Crown Affair."

The industry can expect a lot more from Shondaland. At last count, Beers was juggling a film and nine other TV projects, including a network pilot about millennial nuns and a dramedy about modern-day nannies.

"Betsy is a powerhouse. I go to her for everything," says Katie Lowes, who plays Quinn Perkins on the Peabody-winning Scandal, She and the series' star, Kerry Washington, are executive-producing the nanny pilot, and Beers is steering them along.

"She's as strong creatively as on the business side," says Lowes, who also admires Beers's comportment. "Nothing ever ruffles her tail feathers. She's the first person to adjust and compromise and negotiate. And she's also the first person to stand up for something."

An oft-told anecdote is how Beers was determined to not let slip one of Rhimes's plot points in the Grey's Anatomy pilot.

The scene featured Ellen Pompeo, as Meredith Grey, arriving at Seattle Grace Hospital after a one-night-stand with a stranger, who turns out to be her boss. It apparently felt too racy for some producers. Beers told them, "Yes, I've done the same thing. And it's not unknown to many women."

Beers says her instinct for defending the underdog came from her mom, who  was a teacher. Her passion for television can  be traced to her father, a New York theatrical  agent who often discussed plays, movies and TV shows with her. "My earliest memory is sitting on dad's lap and watching television. It's in my DNA."

Once she could read, she would feverishly study the new-season issue of TV Guide. "I would handicap what I thought would go and what wouldn't. I tried to watch everything," she says, recalling two favorites — That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She found inspiration in Moore's depiction of an independent career gal bolstered by a tightly knit workplace family,

"If you look at Shondaland, the workplace shows are central," Beers points out. "We're trying to represent messy, vulnerable people who are also strong and empowered women who do things."

Beers initially thought she'd act and demonstrated a knack for comedy. For various Procter & Gamble spots, she parodied an out- of-control announcer, Crazy Eddie, seen in 1980s commercials. As Crazy Carol, she says, "I talked frantically. A lot of things fell on my head."

She still occasionally exercises her acting chops. During table reads, she recites the stage directions with verve. "She always gets the biggest laughs," Lowes says.

Moving to Los Angeles, Beers worked almost exclusively in film production for two decades. Starting out as a reader, she eventually served as president of director Mike Newell's Dogstar Films and president of the Mark Gordon Company.

When she finally hooked up with Rhimes, neither had much TV experience. But "you don't know what you don't know," Beers observes. They tackled a pilot about women war correspondents. It wasn't picked up. With their next project, Grey's Anatomy, Beers passed out copies of tapes of the pilot from the trunk of her car.

That series, which has won five Emmys, drew attention for its colorblind casting. Scandal, which has won two Emmys, also kicked back tradition by being the first primetime network show to star a black actress in almost 40 years. In 2015 the star of How to Get Away with Murder, Viola Davis, became the first black woman to win an Emmy Award for outstanding lead actress in a drama series.

"I don't make anything I wouldn't want to watch," says Beers, who is something of an uncommon breed, given that the number of women executive producers still lags considerably behind their male counterparts. But Beers recently moved a desk and white shag rug into the office of the late Harry Cohn, a tyrannical Hollywood mogul.

"It was a gigantic thrill to move into the office," she says. "I want to take the power that's in this office and make sure it's used for good and generosity and creativity."

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