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You may not have known Grey’s Anatomy was still on the air, but 9 million viewers did

This is the cast of Grey's Anatomy, awkwardly photoshopped together.
This is the cast of Grey's Anatomy, awkwardly photoshopped together.
ABC

Something big happened on Grey's Anatomy Thursday, April 23 — something we'll talk about at the end of this article, so as not to spoil everybody.

But it also set the internet to asking a popular question, one that comes up every time something big happens on Grey's: is that show still on the air?!

On the one hand, obviously, yes. Something big just happened. The show wasn't dragged out of retirement for a one-off plot twist.

But on the other hand, this says something about how we think about TV shows that once had big buzz but ultimately faded from the spotlight.

Yes, Grey's Anatomy is still on the air

Though the show is not what it once was, it's still hugely successful. As recently as a couple of years ago, it was still the top drama on TV among the younger viewers advertisers cater to, and the show that surpassed it was Scandal, another series from the creator of Grey's, Shonda Rhimes. (Both shows have since been surpassed by Fox's mega-hit Empire.)

In its 11th season, Grey's has fallen a long way from the days when it would often pull in 25 million viewers or more. This season, it's averaging a little over 8 million viewers. But in an increasingly fragmented TV landscape, that's still a solid number.

And the viewers the show draws skew young. The show is averaging a little under a 2.4 in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic that advertisers covet. That's not good enough for the biggest show on TV — or even on the biggest show on Thursday night — but it's still a very good number. (It's more complicated than this, but at its most basic level, that 2.4 represents the percentage of viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 who watched Grey's Anatomy in a given week.)

And the show spikes in weeks when something big happens. A good case in point is this latest episode, which drew a 2.8 in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic, with just under 9.5 million viewers tuning in.

Grey's isn't a massive hit anymore, but it's done something few shows that got as big as it did have been able to — it maintained a loyal, consistent audience once it stopped being a massive hit. That's incredibly difficult, and it speaks to two things.

Shonda Rhimes is really, really good at what she does

This might seem like an obvious explanation, since Rhimes is one of the most successful producers in television history. But it still bears repeating.

Rhimes has a tremendously distinctive voice, one that continues to shine through on Grey's even after 11 seasons of television. The series has subtly shifted in many ways to work better for the long haul (as you'll see below), but the most consistent thing about it has been that the tone of the series as established by Rhimes in its first season has stayed remarkably consistent. If you tune in to Grey's, you know what you're going to get. That's a good thing if you're a fan of the show — or of ABC.

Sustaining a medical drama is easier than sustaining a soap

One of the reasons people so often say "That's still on?!" of Grey's is because it was such a big hit with the media, as well as with viewers. It was ubiquitous on magazine covers and at award shows for a while, but it eventually faded from the public consciousness, simply because that's how these things work. The buzz is there for a bit, and then it's gone. (Also, many of the show's contemporaries, like Lost, House, and Desperate Housewives, all of which launched in the same TV season, have long since left the air, which contributes to the feeling that the show is of a bygone era.)

But that's because what made Grey's buzzy — its soapy plot twists — are something the show has increasingly deemphasized over the years, in favor of becoming a more sustainable series. In short, Grey's went from being primarily a soap to primarily a medical drama. It still has soapy elements — see: this latest plot twist — but it's focused much more on being a traditional workplace drama about a bunch of people who work in a hospital. And that's easier to make work for more than a decade, as a look at ER would suggest.

So what happened in the latest episode anyway?

Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) died! Derek was the primary love interest and eventual husband of series protagonist Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo). You may know him better as "McDreamy," one of the things from the show that took on a life of its own.

He died after his car was hit by a truck. (Earlier in the episode, he got to be a heroic doctor one last time by saving some victims of a car accident.) After he fell into a vegetative state, Meredith was forced to pull the plug on his life support.

Derek was never the show's best character, but he was a reliable love interest for its protagonist — and notably, he was often written to be as shallow and ill-defined as the female love interests in many male-driven stories, particularly in the early seasons. That gave Grey's an ever-so-slightly transgressive feel that helped it seem new and different in its early going.

Dempsey has been talking about leaving the show for a while, so what happened was no huge surprise. Both he and Rhimes spoke about the departure.

Dempsey's departure will likely contribute to the sense that the show goes through lots and lots of characters, but that's not really true. The core ensemble is remarkably unchanged for a show this age.

Of the nine actors who were series regulars in season one, five were still regulars as of last night, when Dempsey checked out, and six were still regulars as of season 10, when Sandra Oh left the show. That's a surprisingly robust retention rate, to say nothing of all the later additions who've stuck around. For comparison's sake, just three original cast members of C.S.I. made it all the way to season 11.

Grey's has always had a huge supporting cast of characters that come and go, and the first three of its original stars to leave the series — Isaiah Washington, T. R. Knight, and Katherine Heigl — all left in very dramatic fashion, which contributed to the sense that Grey's churns through actors.

Correction: This article originally said ABC launched Desperate Housewives, Lost, and House the same season as Grey's Anatomy. House was on Fox.