Delicate Surgery on 'Grey's Anatomy' ABC Explores a Spinoff In a Now-Uncommon Move To Exploit Hit Show's Power By BROOKS BARNES ABC is surgically removing part of "Grey's Anatomy" to see if it can survive on its own. In a bold move that could bring in millions of dollars in new advertising income if it's successful, ABC has decided to pursue a spinoff of the hugely successful medical drama. Departing "Grey's Anatomy" to anchor the new show would be one of its most popular characters: Dr. Addison Montgomery-Shepherd, a sexy neonatal-surgeon played by Kate Walsh. The general plot is still a work in progress and "Grey's Anatomy" creator Shonda Rhimes hasn't settled on a title, says a spokeswoman for ABC, a unit of Walt Disney Co. But Ms. Rhimes recently told the cast about the project and agreed to write a special two-hour episode that will serve as a pilot for the new series. This type of old-fashioned character spinoff is increasingly rare in the risk-averse TV business. ABC is likely to air the special in May -- in time for the network to decide whether to pick up the spinoff before unveiling its fall schedule to advertisers and media buyers. ABC President of Entertainment Stephen McPherson declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the ABC Television Studio, which produces the series, confirmed it has inked a deal with Ms. Walsh, but said Ms. Rhimes and Ms. Walsh both were unavailable. No new show is a safe bet in the fast and fickle TV business, but a spinoff is a safer bet. Rather than launching cold, spinoffs come with a built-in audience already invested in the concept or character. There's a strong marketing hook -- a crucial element as networks battle an expanding array of entertainment options for viewer attention. And some of TV's most popular shows have been spinoffs, including "The Jeffersons," spawned by "All in the Family," and "Frasier," a spinoff of "Cheers." Although Mr. McPherson has dramatically transformed ABC over the past two years from the last-place broadcaster to a contender for No. 1, the network still has holes on its schedule that would benefit from a new hit. Wednesday night has started to struggle -- the castaways drama "Lost" is down 23% among adults age 18 to 49 this season compared with last -- and the network has been keeping some Friday time slots warm by airing reruns. In many ways, spinning off a show from "Grey's Anatomy" would mark a departure for the modern TV industry. True spinoffs -- where ancillary characters leave an established show to become the leads of a new one -- are less common today than in decades past. A big reason: There are fewer smash hits, particularly comedies, to spin off. The TV schedule is replete with strong dramas, but shows such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" tend to spawn new franchises with entirely new casts of characters, notes TV historian Tim Brooks, author of "The Complete Guide to Prime Time." Indeed, networks rarely have the confidence to pursue a character spinoff of an hour-long drama. One of the few successes was in 1979 when Gary and Valene Ewing departed "Dallas" to launch "Knots Landing." More often, attempts have been spectacular flops, such as the 1987 bid to spin off "Hill Street Blues" by sending detective Norman Buntz, played by Dennis Franz, and his snitch Sid, played by Peter Jurasik, to California. "Beverly Hills Buntz" failed within a season (although Mr. Franz went on to greater things in "NYPD Blue"). But with "Grey's Anatomy," ABC has a white-hot hit, fueled by complex story lines and charismatic characters. Despite moving to highly competitive Thursday from Sunday last fall, "Grey's Anatomy" is notching some of its best ratings ever. Last week, 26 million people tuned in to watch the doctors and medical students at Seattle Grace Hospital cope with the fallout of a ferry crash. At the same time, the ensemble show, now in its third season, has an abundance of strong characters, including Ellen Pompeo as Dr. Meredith Grey and Patrick Dempsey as Dr. Derek Shepherd. Indeed, Ms. Rhimes recently told a gathering of TV critics that it was difficult fitting all 12 "Grey's Anatomy" regulars into storylines. She wants to be intimately involved in the potential spinoff and, to free up her schedule, has tabled another pilot about a group of female journalists, says a person familiar with the matter. Ms. Walsh's Dr. Montgomery-Shepherd joined the show in May 2005, appearing in the last few minutes of the season-one finale. She abruptly shows up at the Seattle hospital looking for her estranged neurosurgeon husband, Dr. Shepherd, and discovers he has a girlfriend. Ms. Walsh confronts her with a pointed -- and explicit -- remark. Although Ms. Rhimes and ABC executives think Ms. Walsh's character can continue evolving on "Grey's Anatomy," it became clear in recent months that her position in the show was changing, say people familiar with the matter. After all, now divorced from the neurosurgeon and friendly with the girlfriend, Dr. Montgomery-Shepherd has had fewer spats to keep her busy -- and fewer fireworks to entertain viewers. ABC is approaching the spinoff in a smart way, says Norman Lear, the TV producer who refined the art of the spinoff in the 1970s when his "All in the Family" spawned a record five new shows. Too often networks try to force audiences to embrace a character just because they have an actor amenable to a spinoff -- NBC's ill-fated "Friends" spinoff "Joey," starring Matt LeBlanc, for instance. Instead, networks should "see who's popping and try to build something" around them, he says. "Sometimes you cast somebody in a lesser role and once you see them on screen you say to yourself, 'Oh my God, this person shouldn't be in the outfield. This person could be a great pitcher,'" says Mr. Lear. His advice to Ms. Rhimes: "Trust your instincts and don't force anything." He also notes that successfully juggling monster-sized egos -- particularly those of the cast members who are not getting their own show -- is a crucial part of the spinoff process. If the "Grey's Anatomy" special episode doesn't lead to a new series for ABC's fall schedule, the network has several high-profile projects in the pipeline to fall back on. One of them is "Life on Mars," a remake of a British Broadcasting Corp. drama about a modern-day detective who finds himself transported back to 1973. ABC also has high hopes for a one-hour pilot called "Dirty Sexy Money," a drama from Greg Berlanti ("Dawson's Creek," "Everwood") that focuses on an idealistic lawyer hired to tend to the legal -- and often illegal -- needs of a megarich New York family.