Why Shonda Rhimes Jumped Ship From ABC to Netflix

“Scandal” creator’s new deal comes as her relationship with ABC is on the wane

Shonda Rhimes
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

ABC’s most reliable hitmaker Shonda Rhimes has jumped ship, moving her longtime juggernaut production company Shondaland over to Netflix with a rich new overall deal, marking a huge shift in the television landscape.

Rhimes’ stated reason for leaving ABC Studios after 15 years is a desire for the creative freedom offered by Netflix, including fewer restrictions, more flexible episode orders and variable run times.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the producer voiced a desire to escape the “necessary grind of network television,” including the arduous task of producing 22-24 episodes per season.

For the time being, Rhimes remains attached as an executive producer on all of the Shondaland shows currently airing and in the pipeline at ABC, including “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” this fall’s upcoming legal drama “For the People” and a firefighter-centric “Grey’s” spinoff.

But as “Grey’s” heads into its 14th season — with executive producer Krista Vernoff returning to the series as co-showrunner alongside Rhimes and Betsy Beers — and “Scandal” prepares for its final, farewell season, Rhimes’ role as a hands-on producer at ABC is in a down period.

“Murder,” the third show airing as part of ABC’s heavily promoted “TGIT” Thursday night programming block, is run by Shondaland vet Pete Nowalk; Former “This Is Us” co-showrunner Don Todd and “Scandal” writer Paul William Davies will helm “For the People”; and the untitled “Grey’s” spinoff is being led by Stacy McKee. All will remain with ABC.

To boot, Shondaland hasn’t launched a hit at ABC since “Murder” in 2014. The Mirelle Enos-Peter Krause drama “The Catch” was rebooted after a rough first season and soon canceled. The long-delayed “Romeo & Juliet” sequel series “Still Star-Crossed” was pushed to summer and eventually moved to Saturday nights.

Even now, “For the People” is undergoing a retooling before its premiere, with Britt Robertson stepping in for lead Britne Oldford, who starred in the original pilot and trailer unveiled at upfronts back in May.

According to individuals familiar with the matter, Rhimes’ split with ABC Studios has been in the works for months. Her current pact was set to expire next June, but when the producer expressed a desire to venture outside of broadcast, a deal was worked out to release her early, at an opportune time for both parties.

Another factor in Rhimes’ jump is the hefty price Netflix surely paid to steal Rhimes away from ABC for what’s said to be a four-year deal. Terms of the agreement are not being disclosed, but Rhimes’ previous deal with ABC Studios was reportedly worth $10 million per year. She’ll also be earning a piece of the back-end on any series she creates for the streamer moving forward.

The big question raised by the move is what a Shonda Rhimes-produced streaming series would look like, given that her massive success in television thus far has all been with ABC.

Rhimes’ series have long been sold as event television, with the all-Shondaland Thursday night line-up sold to ABC viewers as a reason to watch individual episodes live. The casts and writers of all three shows were enlisted tweet along with the broadcast to encourage week-to-week viewership.

Netflix’s binge-release strategy is a markedly different approach, and much has been made about how crafting a season of television meant to be watched in one big batch differs from the traditional episodic structure. And now viewers will just have to wait to see how all of that will affect Rhimes’ output, which up until now has been confined to traditional broadcast TV standards.