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Four Takeaways From Shonda Rhimes’s Deal With Netflix

With the super-producer jumping ship from ABC and heading to streaming, the TV status quo may be changed forever

Shonda Rhimes Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Lest the entertainment world get even a moment’s rest following Sunday night’s Game of Thrones, after the episode one of the most dramatic bombshells in recent memory hit the trades: Super-producer Shonda Rhimes is leaving her longtime home at ABC to join forces with Netflix. Since the launch of Grey’s Anatomy in 2005, Rhimes has accomplished the formidable achievement of making her name synonymous with a night of the week by engineering the network’s #TGIT prime-time lineup. One trembles to think what she’ll do with Netflix’s seemingly unlimited resources — and as for what Netflix itself can do with those resources, well, we’re looking at it.

Details are still trickling out, but Rhimes appears to have struck a multiyear development deal very similar to the one she currently holds with ABC Studios, the production arm of the network. (A show’s studio, and not its broadcaster, profits off of non-advertising revenue streams like syndication rights.) Rhimes has even managed to secure an early exit from her arrangement with ABC, which had one year left on its four-year duration; press releases from both sides of the switch attempt to stress that this separation is amicable. “The Shondaland imprint will always be an important part of ABC Studios,” a sample bit of politesse from studio head Patrick Moran reads. ”We wish them all the best in this new endeavor.”

There’s some obvious symbolism at work here: There are precious few proven hitmakers in network television anymore (along with Dick Wolf and Greg Berlanti, Rhimes is in a class of arguably just three), and the biggest player in streaming just took one off the board when they’ve never been more valuable. But there are also plenty of less abstract takeaways when it comes to what the move means for all parties involved: ABC, Netflix, and most importantly Rhimes herself. As her fans know, Shonda Rhimes isn’t just Shonda Rhimes; she’s the head of Shondaland, an entire semiautonomous production entity that Rhimes runs with partner Betsy Beers that oversees an ever-expanding empire of soapy, diversely cast entertainment (and, incidentally, shares lot space with The Ringer). Transplanting that complex won’t be simple, and the fallout won’t either. While the dust is still settling, let’s run through some takeaways for what this poaching says about the state of TV — and how it might change the status quo.

This Isn’t the End for ABC (Yet)

It’s easy to be alarmist about the future of ABC and even network TV as a whole based on this development. (In fact, Netflix would very much like you to be.) But it’s worth noting that in this split, ABC keeps custody of the five Shondaland projects on its docket: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, upcoming legal drama For the People, and a second, still-untitled Grey’s Anatomy spinoff. (RIP, Private Practice.) It’s also worth noting that Scandal is set to end after its upcoming seventh season, How to Get Away With Murder isn’t the ratings powerhouse it once was, and Shondaland’s two most recent efforts for the network, The Catch and Still Star-Crossed, have fallen short.

This isn’t to say that ABC is set for life (it’s not) or to deny Shonda’s awesome powers (I would never). But ABC was going to have to figure out its non-Shondaland drama identity sooner or later; given that its fall lineup includes a show in which Jason Ritter plays a guy named Kevin who suddenly starts seeing an angel, all signs point to “sooner.” Plus, 12 years of a mutually beneficial relationship is an entirely respectable tenure, one that had possibly run its course even before Netflix intervened. All of which is to say that Shonda’s presence itself isn’t necessarily do-or-die for ABC — the network’s fate rests much more on what it does to fill the vacuum she’s leaving behind.

Rhimes Is Off the Network Leash

Let’s take a moment to appreciate what this means for the creative product, not just the business surrounding it: The prospect of a streaming-native Shonda Rhimes show is very exciting! Just because Rhimes is one of the last people on earth who can craft a 22-episode, serialized-but-episodic, long season of TV doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be interesting to see what she and her partners would do with a shortened run, higher budgets per episode, and no need to worry about broadcast standards. The idea of gay sex scenes or depicting abortion onscreen is less inherently subversive in the context of Netflix, where the Underwoods had a threesome with their security guard and the first season of GLOW climaxed in a character choosing to terminate her pregnancy. Still, it’s intriguing to think about what someone who’s made a behind-the-camera name for themselves on network TV — an environment considered generally less hospitable to strong individual voices than streaming and cable — will do now that she’s been lured to the other side. Just look at what Norman Lear, who was arguably Shonda Rhimes before there was a Shonda Rhimes, has done with One Day at a Time, the multicam sitcom that currently represents the best-case scenario for what happens when broadcast hits the internet.

Netflix’s Recent Setbacks Are Minor at Best

Like any behemoth, Netflix has faced its fair share of scrutiny lately thanks to a stream of potentially unflattering headlines. First, Netflix’s policy of renewing every single show has come to its end, with the company canceling Sense8, The Get Down, Girlboss, and Gypsy in the span of just a few weeks. Then, the Los Angeles Times ran an article speculating how long the service could survive incurring massive debt to fund its equally massive expenditures. And just last week, Disney (which owns ABC, and through it has a stake in competing streaming service Hulu) announced its plans to pull its feature films from Netflix while it developed its own, competing product. Everyone had been waiting for the first few cracks to appear in Netflix’s seemingly impregnable facade, so it’s no surprise that they were covered breathlessly.

However, Rhimes’s onboarding goes to show that while Netflix’s new focus on a slightly more Darwinian scale and long-term financial concerns may be notable, it’s far from fatal. The company is still capable of spending a stupendous amount of cash on a highly visible power move, and while we won’t see the results for a while — or be able to evaluate them with conventional metrics of success like Nielsen ratings — securing Rhimes is still a far greater show of strength than the sudden absence of Rogue One is a sign of weakness.

Ratings Don’t Matter, Except Ratings Matter

Speaking of ratings, it is curious that a company that supposedly doesn’t care about numbers has gone out of its way to partner with someone known for producing … numbers. Shondaland makes great shows, to be sure, but they’re shows that function first and foremost as popular entertainment. It says a lot that Netflix would go to her and not David Milch — or, to use a less extreme example, someone like Vince Gilligan or Noah Hawley, who can run an interconnected, distinctive set of shows that remain relatively niche.

Perhaps the lesson here is that while ratings don’t matter to Netflix in the specific (as in, which episode of which show got how many millions of eyeballs), they do matter in general. Netflix is still a subscription service, and its long-apparent strategy for maximizing subscriptions is to be all things to all people, catering to every demographic at once so as not to cede an inch of market share. It’s long since captured prestige viewers with the likes of Master of None, and has made inroads with both international audiences (The Crown, 3%) and the CBS portion of broadcast’s viewership (The Ranch, Fuller House). Netflix even has a pair of shows clearly modeled after the comedy portion of ABC’s programming in the form of nontraditional family comedies like One Day at a Time and the recently launched Atypical. Now it’s absorbing Shondaland, and hopefully its large and loyal audience along with it. Just because Netflix doesn’t have a problem supporting a few lesser-watched shows that attract critical acclaim — something tells me that BoJack Horseman isn’t a This Is Us–level hit — doesn’t mean its eyes still aren’t on the world-domination prize, or that it doesn’t see a Shonda Rhimes collaboration as the simplest way to get there.