‘Scandal’ creator Shonda Rhimes: Why I left ABC for Netflix

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent

Shonda Rhimes is oh-so-ready for a new creative challenge. 

For 15 years, the prolific writer and producer churned out hit after hit for ABC Studios — “Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” to name a few — cementing her and Shondaland, her Los Angeles-based production company, as the choice purveyor of primetime dramas, rife with crackling dialogue and plot twists. Then in August, Rhimes dropped the biggest plot twist of them all: She was leaving the lucrative pastures of network television for Netflix (NFLX).

Rhimes sat down with Yahoo Finance in one of her first media interviews since the announcement. For the 47-year-old writer and executive producer, Netflix’s popular streaming service offered the tantalizing opportunity to try new things creatively beyond the “soapy, twist-heavy dramas” she’s known for — a trademark she suggested was partly due to the constraints imposed by network television. She also says Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos saw eye-to-eye on the kinds of content she’d like to develop moving forward.  

“On Netflix, I think, there’s not necessarily a sense of, ‘You have to make a particular kind of show for a particular kind of branded audience,'” ‘Scandal’ creator Shonda Rhimes told Yahoo Finance.

“There is this idea that when you work on network television, well, every network has a brand, kind of,” Rhimes told Yahoo Finance at Intuit’s (INTU) fourth-annual QuickBooks Connect conference, held in San Jose, California. “There’s a certain kind of show. And I feel like people thought — or think — that the Shondaland brand is a very specific kind of show that we make. And that is a show that we make because we are on ABC for our ABC audience, which I love and I’m proud of, and it’s a very big audience, and it’s worked quite well for us.”

Rhimes admitted she’s excited to develop new material on Netflix that longtime Shondaland fans may be surprised by. Episodes in a Netflix original series, for instance, don’t need to have a certain structure, or “construct,” to them, she points out. Creators have carte blanche to do anything they set their minds (and vast productions) to.

“On Netflix, I think, there’s not necessarily a sense of, ‘You have to make a particular kind of show for a particular kind of branded audience,” Rhimes added. “The brand of Netflix is just creativity. And that’s exciting: the idea that I get to write in whatever manner I want to write, in whatever form I want to write because I want to write it, versus having to really be savvy about the constraints of the time period. You have a time slot, so there are certain stories you can tell at eight o’clock or at nine o’clock or at 10 o’clock. You know what audience is coming to you, so you know what your advertisers are looking for. None of that is a worry in streaming.”

A big move at a crucial time

Rhimes is the mastermind behind such hit primetime dramas as “Scandal,” starring Kerry Washington, which is in its seventh and final season on ABC.

Rhimes’s big move to Netflix comes at a crucial time for broadcast and cable television. According to an eMarketer report published in September, over 22 million “cord cutters” ages 18 and older this year will shirk traditional cable or satellite television in lieu of streaming services from Netflix, Amazon (AMZN) and Hulu — up nearly 33% year-over-year. That’s in addition to the contingent of consumers who have never subscribed to traditional cable or satellite TV, also known as “cord nevers,” which is also climbing, albeit at a slower pace. All told, eMarketer estimates the number of “cord cutters” and “cord nevers” combined will grow from 56.6 million in the U.S. this year to 81.1 million in 2021.

Source: eMarketer

Rhimes, for one, thinks cord-cutters and their ilk will ultimately prevail.

“I think every time something like this happens, everyone says, ‘Will it work? Is it gonna happen? I don’t think it’s going to,’” Rhimes says. “It always prevails, because whatever the next generation is doing is what they’re doing, and that becomes habit and fact. My 15-year old has never watched cable. I mean, truly, never watched cable. It hasn’t even occurred to her. If there’s a television in my house, no. She watches Netflix on her computer. That’s just not a thing that’s happened. My 5-year-old wouldn’t know a commercial if she saw it. So I do think that cord cutting is going to happen and I think it’s going to prevail, and I think that’s just the way of the world.”

To be clear, Rhimes will still be working on a daily basis with the productions of ongoing Shondaland shows such as “How to Get Away with Murder” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” which will continue to air on ABC. (“I still have upwards of 67 actors who are my network television shows, and I have 500, 600, 800 crew members,” she points out.) But new Shondaland material will be a Netflix-only affair.  

That said, what exactly can we expect from Rhimes and Shondaland on Netflix? Will she completely jettison the successful tried-and-true formula she perfected on ABC in favor of more avant-garde plots and concepts? Or will new Shondaland shows offer a more familiar feel fans have long enjoyed?

“Oh, wow, those are spoilers,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t give spoilers! But you’ll have to watch and see.”

Fair enough.

JP Mangalindan is the Chief Tech Correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Email story tips and musings to jpm@oath.com. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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