BEVERLY HILLS - Every year here, going back at least a decade, ABC executives have reliably predicted that "Grey's Anatomy" will go on for years, and I'm happy to report that Tuesday, ABC Entertainment chief Paul Lee continued the tradition, with a slight variation -- "Grey's" will go on for "years AND years," he proclaimed.

And there's no immediate reason for doubt -- it has been exactly a decade, after all, and the numbers remain mostly intact. (Ten million-plus viewers a week, which in network TV terms these days is spectacular.)

But on this, the 10th anniversary year of primetime's most durable soap, there is doubt indeed, expressed in a one word question -- Derek. (Or maybe to add just a little dramatic pop to that: Derek ... sob.)

With the abrupt exit of Patrick Dempsey -- Derek Shepherd -- last spring, ABC and "Grey's" saw a part of the franchise walk out the door. Lots of reasons for this departure, probably some of them believe it or not even related to money, but this was still something of a surprise.

So to the questions ... and showrunner and creator Shonda Rhimes -- she has indeed another show on ABC forthcoming midseason, entitled "The Catch," about a forensics accountant) -- got 'em.

Ellen Pompeo -- Meredith -- also on stage here facing the assembled TV writers, was even asked how her character would change, given that she had been so closely "defined" by the relationship. She and Rhimes almost jumped on the question at the same time: "Meredith has NEVER been defined by a man," she said, almost indignantly. ("I was going to say exactly the same thing," Rhimes said).

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"What were the options," she said of Derek's death on a deserted road, broadsided by a truck while he was turning his car around. "Derek was going to walk out on Meredith [Ellen Pompeo, also here Tuesday] and leave her high and dry and what was that going to mean. That was going to suggest that their love was not true, that the thing we said for 11 years was a lie, and McDreamy wasn't McDreamy.

"For me, that was untenable. Meredith and Derek's love had to remain Meredith and Derek's love. So as painful as that was for me as a storyteller, the only way to preserve what felt true to me was that Derek was going to have to die in order for that to remain honest. I really couldn't have the idea that he turned out to be a bad guy who walked out on his wife and his kids ... To me, that was the only way to make Meredith and Derek's magic remain true and remain frozen in time."

Pompeo -- bless her -- saw the silver lining in all of this: His sudden death, leaving her a widowed mother is "a very important human story to tell. So many people lose their spouses. A lot of people feel they can't get up again. If we give anybody, even one person, a little bit of comfort, that's a story worth telling."

Rhimes expanded on that: For the 12th season, beginning Sept. 24, "Meredith is single and she is living this life that she never thought she'd be living again. She's living in a house with her sisters. She's surrounded by women who are dating and having a whole life and she's not interested in that [and] starting to wonder if her best years are behind her.

"I guess the theme of [the 12th] is rebirth."


It will also be, she promised, "lighter in tone."