Rhimes, and her company Shondaland, is the biggest fish Netflix’s original-TV silo has reeled in so far. But plenty of other prominent names have recently committed to producing original shows for the company, including the Coen brothers (creating an anthology series called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and Steven Soderbergh (producing a limited series called Godless). In every case, Netflix is writing huge checks to name-brand creators who can guarantee an audience and hopefully broaden an already wide subscriber base.
But for Rhimes, the draw has to be more than financial—after all, there’s plenty of money to be made in network TV. Her move to Netflix is the clearest sign of a seismic shift in the television world, where traditional metrics of success like massive ratings, syndication deals, and prime-time slots matter less, and greater artistic independence is the ultimate goal. Right now, Netflix can offer an unprecedented blank check for each of its creators. The question is whether it can sustain it into the future.
“Shondaland’s move to Netflix is the result of a shared plan [that Netflix’s chief content officer] Ted Sarandos and I built based on my vision for myself as a storyteller and for the evolution of my company,” Rhimes said in a statement announcing the news. “Ted provides a clear, fearless space for creators at Netflix. He understood what I was looking for—the opportunity to build a vibrant new storytelling home for writers with the unique creative freedom and instantaneous global reach provided by Netflix’s singular sense of innovation. The future of Shondaland at Netflix has limitless possibilities.”
She’s right: For Netflix, the prize is Rhimes’s brand, allowing her to pursue whatever kind of programming she wants. Despite Rhimes’s stature on network TV, her shows had to go through the drawn-out production process of any new ABC series—and could still end up dead on arrival. Still Star-Crossed, which Rhimes produced for ABC, was written in October 2015, ordered to pilot in January 2016, ordered to series in May 2016, and finally premiered on May 29, 2017. Because of poor ratings and mixed reviews, it was canceled less than a month later.
That kind of production cycle is the sort of thing Netflix has thoroughly disrupted. Rhimes won’t be competing for limited time slots with all the network’s other new offerings, nor will her shows need strong ratings out of the gate to guarantee future success. That will allow her to be more deliberate in identifying the kinds of stories she wants to tell and less worried about finding the perfect launch date for a series. Netflix pushes out so much content partly because it wants viewers to have endless new things to discover; it thrives on slower word-of-mouth appeal.
At the same time, Rhimes is a network-TV storyteller through and through. Her shows are gripping, overstuffed with plot twists and shocking reveals, and usually procedural in some form (Grey’s and Scandal both have “case of the week” stories along with their serialized narratives). She’s been pumping out 22-episode seasons for many years now, keeping up with the exhausting demands of the nine-month, network-TV season.