Shonda Rhimes has been, for many years, the standard-bearer of broadcast TV. Shows from her production company, ShondaLand — including the currently airing Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, all on ABC —draw consistent audiences and endless chatter for the way they work with, not against, broadcast TV’s core qualities. (The currently airing shows will remain on ABC, while future Rhimes shows will stream online.) Those qualities include a hefty episode count in which endless twists can play out, a baseline standard of propriety whose limits can be great fun to test and a necessarily big and broad audience that will, when delivered shock and awe, respond in kind. Rhimes isn’t just one of the most successful figures in all of TV; she’s one of the few justifications, nowadays, for the medium’s existence.
Which is why the news that she’s decided to move her production company to streaming service Netflix, while unsurprising from a business perspective, is so startling from a creative one. There have been plenty of Netflix shows that share DNA with the Rhimes method: House of Cards, like Scandal, serves up its presidential palace intrigue with a dose of mania, while Orange is the New Black, like Grey’s Anatomy, is unafraid to reveal a big, sentimental heart. But the whole package of a Rhimes show makes for an intriguing addition to Netflix’s catalog, precisely because it’s borrowing so heavily from network TV.
In theory, this is nothing new. Complete seasons of her shows have streamed as part of Netflix’s catalog for years. Many viewers (including this one) caught up with Scandal on a lazy streaming afternoon before joining the live viewing audience in season 3 or so, and Grey’s Anatomy‘s stunning strength going into its 14th season can be credited in small part to the show’s second life on Netflix. But watching years-old reruns of a show whose reputation is already forged is different from watching a brand-new show in the first moments of its existence. Rhimes’ shows thrive on the audience’s reaction to a strikingly delivered monologue or a juicy twist; live-tweeting helped cement the hit status of Scandal in particular. When the audience is all watching an entire season’s worth of drama at their own respective paces, will the shows still resonate?
Netflix is hoping — and assuming — yes. The content service has long since moved past just producing premium-cable-style series like Cards and Orange, both of which could credibly have aired on a cable network like HBO or FX. The service’s most recent big announcement, before Rhimes, was the addition of an anthology series by film directors Joel and Ethan Coen that fits somewhere between movies and TV. These two announcements seem to cover the waterfront of entertainment: the Coens are the standard-bearers of crowd-pleasing highbrow cinema, while Rhimes is the same for broadcast TV drama. (Netflix has a couple broadcast-style comedies, including the self-consciously retro duo Fuller House and The Ranch, but precious little that feels like it could air in the ten p.m. slot on ABC.) The addition of both, at presumably huge expense, exposes just how colossal Netflix’s ambition really is.
But there are many more movie directors than Joel and Ethan Coen, and the brothers themselves will surely go on to make many movies that play in theaters. There are precious few people who’ve effectively cracked the nut of how to make a broadcast TV show, and one of them is now under contract away from a broadcast network. If Rhimes is able to overcome the lost live element and replicate the magic of a Grey’s Anatomy or a Scandal on Netflix, it raises real questions about whether the expensive, time-consuming and so often vexed process of creating content for ad-supported broadcast TV is still worthwhile. If the best of its sensibility can work without all the limiting factors that make the networks great and frustrating, why would it keep chugging along?
Then again, we may never really know if it works. A show by ShondaLand will necessarily get a huge publicity push from Netflix, in order to showcase their new marquee collaborator and drive subscriptions. It may or may not get hugely watched, as some of the company’s shows do not; either way, Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers. With enough media coverage and the typical protection of viewership info, a Still Star-Crossed (this summer’s ShondaLand fizzle on ABC) could run for many seasons and be seen as a hit. Netflix would surely prefer a Scandal-sized, culture-moving smash. But simply having one of the great practitioners of a particular kind of television — one that’s little-represented on their service — will be, no matter what, a good start. No coincidence that for broadcast TV, one of the major competitors with Netflix for viewer attention, it’s a tremendous symbolic and practical setback.