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Bringing Experience, Fun to ShondaLand

Betsy Beers spent lots of time as a child plopped in front of the television set.

“Television was probably my third parent,” says Beers, executive producer of the Shonda Rhimes series Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and the upcoming How to Get Away With Murder.

Beers’ dad, Nate, a theater talent agent, would sit with her and teach her how to read and identify actors. She also loved learning the TV schedule and knowing what was on every night.

“I guess I was an older person in a tiny person’s body,” Beers says. “But I thought all of that was incredibly interesting, and really fun to watch.”

Beers’ childhood prepared her for life as an executive producer and as a partner at Shonda Rhimes’ production shingle, ShondaLand.

“We got along immediately,” Rhimes says of Beers.

The duo met when Rhimes began talking with Touchstone Television (now ABC Studios) about developing a show; they have worked together ever since.

Grey’s Anatomy premiered on ABC in 2005. In ’07, the since-canceled Grey’s spinoff Private Practice bowed.

“It’s really great to work with somebody that you both respect and also enjoy working with,” says Rhimes. “We have a lot of fun together.”

Producing wasn’t the first plan, however. In 1987, Beers, originally from the East Coast, moved to Los Angeles intent on finding “fame and fortune” as an actor. She quickly learned acting wasn’t her thing and began reading scripts for studios.

“I realized I loved the world of development and felt it was a very natural fit for me, as opposed to acting,” Beers says.

It led to gigs at Dogstar Films (where she produced 200 Cigarettes and Best Laid Plans and developed High Fidelity and Pushing Tin) and Mark Gordon Co. (where Beers produced The Hoax and Casanova before also beginning to develop Grey’s Anatomy). But still, maintains Beers, “I have a lot of sympathy for what actors do, and I think it’s helped me in my current job for both understanding character and also just the difficult life actors have.”

Perhaps that’s why Channing Dungey, executive VP of drama development and miniseries at ABC Entertainment Group, says Beers is “a class act.”

“I absolutely adore her. What I love about her is she’s one of the hardestworking people I know,” says Dungey. “But she never lets you see her sweat. She’s always got a sense of humor, even when things are going haywire.”

It could well come close to that this season: Sept. 25 marks the debut of ABC’s three-hour Thursday-night block of ShondaLand shows. #TGIT—Thank God It’s Thursday, as excited fans refer to it on Twitter—will kick off with the 11th season of Grey’s Anatomy, followed by season 4 of Scandal and then freshman How to Get Away With Murder.

Earlier this year, the Directors Guild of America honored Rhimes and Beers with the Diversity Award for their commitment to diverse on- and off-screen talent. Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder both have black female leads, Emmy-nominee Kerry Washington and Viola Davis, respectively.

“It’s very important that TV portrays the world as the world actually is,” says Beers, who is based in L.A. and married to criminal defense attorney Bruce Cormicle. “For us, diversity isn’t an effort. It’s simply life. It’s the way we live our lives.”

Beers and Rhimes have a number of projects in the pipeline for next season already, including comedies. It’s a departure from their big dramas, but a challenge that brings Beers back to her childhood in front of the set, where she would watch All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett, Cheers and Taxi. “Yeah, I watched pretty much all that stuff,” she says. “I could blather on about that forever.”

Although chances are that “blathering” will just lead to some more hits.

Beers and ShondaLand’s next big hit may well be How to Get Away With Murder.

The crime drama has all the makings of a blockbuster with Oscar-nominee Viola Davis leading the cast as professor/defense attorney Annalise Keating.

Davis’ Keating, as Beers describes, is a strong woman who is always one step ahead of the audience. And Keating stays ahead with the help of writing by ShondaLand veteran Peter Nowalk.

“So, all of these things [Nowalk’s writing and the actors], and…the stories that we’re trying to tell as the weekly cases are, they’re fun,” says Beers, whose husband works as a consultant on both Murder and Scandal. “They’re delicious. They’re serious. They’re intense but they’re also really, really intriguing and they’re very much like the tone of the show itself.”

She adds that Murder is different from other court dramas in that it looks at justice from the defense perspective as opposed to the prosecution.

Nowalk has also leant his talents to Scandal, helping create the powerful main character Olivia Pope, who Beers describes as a woman that takes charge of a room.

“When I’m in trouble, I want to call her,” says Beers of Pope.

With all of the balls Beers has to juggle, the producer still manages to keep her sense of humor—with, perhaps, an assist from her background in improv comedy.

“I may not have said this enough but you know Betsy is hilarious,” says Dungey. “She’s got the sharpest, driest sense of humor. “When you’re in it with somebody that brings a smile to your face and that can make you laugh when things are truly crazy, that’s such a valuable gift.”

Rhimes adds that working with Beers is fun not only because she is funny.

“She swears like a sailor,” says Rhimes. “She really has a great perspective about things. Nothing is life or death and we both remind each other of that frequently. We are in fact only making television.”

Fans might beg to differ, given the popularity and power of the dramas Rhimes and Beers have made together.