Cyndi Stivers: So, future of storytelling. Before we do the future, let's talk about what is never going to change about storytelling.
Shonda Rhimes: What's never going to change. Obviously, I think good stories are never going to change, the need for people to gather together and exchange their stories and to talk about the things that feel universal, the idea that we all feel a compelling need to watch stories, to tell stories, to share stories — sort of the gathering around the campfire to discuss the things that tell each one of us that we are not alone in the world. Those things to me are never going to change. That essence of storytelling is never going to change.
CS: OK. In preparation for this conversation, I checked in with Susan Lyne, who was running ABC Entertainment when you were working on "Grey's Anatomy" —
CS: And she said that there was this indelible memory she had of your casting process, where without discussing it with any of the executives, you got people coming in to read for your scripts, and every one of them was the full range of humanity, you did not type anyone in any way, and that it was completely surprising. So she said, in addition to retraining the studio executives, you also, she feels, and I think this is — I agree, retrained the expectations of the American TV audience. So what else does the audience not yet realize that it needs?
SR: What else does it not yet realize? Well, I mean, I don't think we're anywhere near there yet. I mean, we're still in a place in which we're far, far behind what looks like the real world in actuality. I wasn't bringing in a bunch of actors who looked very different from one another simply because I was trying to make a point, and I wasn't trying to do anything special. It never occurred to me that that was new, different or weird. I just brought in actors because I thought they were interesting and to me, the idea that it was completely surprising to everybody — I didn't know that for a while. I just thought: these are the actors I want to see play these parts. I want to see what they look like if they read. We'll see what happens. So I think the interesting thing that happens is that when you look at the world through another lens, when you're not the person normally in charge of things, it just comes out a different way.
CS: So you now have this big machine that you run, as a titan — as you know, last year when she gave her talk — she's a titan. So what do you think is going to happen as we go on? There's a huge amount of money involved in producing these shows. While the tools of making stories have gone and gotten greatly democratized, there's still this large distribution: people who rent networks, who rent the audience to advertisers and make it all pay. How do you see the business model changing now that anyone can be a storyteller?
SR: I think it's changing every day. I mean, the rapid, rapid change that's happening is amazing. And I feel — the panic is palpable, and I don't mean that in a bad way. I think it's kind of exciting. The idea that there's sort of an equalizer happening, that sort of means that anybody can make something, is wonderful. I think there's some scary in the idea that you can't find the good work now. There's so much work out there. I think there's something like 417 dramas on television right now at any given time in any given place, but you can't find them. You can't find the good ones. So there's a lot of bad stuff out there because everybody can make something. It's like if everybody painted a painting. You know, there's not that many good painters. But finding the good stories, the good shows, is harder and harder and harder. Because if you have one tiny show over here on AMC and one tiny show over here over there, finding where they are becomes much harder. So I think that ferreting out the gems and finding out who made the great webisode and who made this, it's — I mean, think about the poor critics who now are spending 24 hours a day trapped in their homes watching everything. It's not an easy job right now. So the distribution engines are getting more and more vast, but finding the good programming for everybody in the audience is getting harder. And unlike the news, where everything's getting winnowed down to just who you are, television seems to be getting — and by television I mean anything you can watch, television shows on — seems to be getting wider and wider and wider. And so anybody's making stories, and the geniuses are sometimes hidden. But it's going to be harder to find, and at some point that will collapse. People keep talking about peak TV. I don't know when that's going to happen. I think at some point it'll collapse a little bit and we'll, sort of, come back together. I don't know if it will be network television. I don't know if that model is sustainable.
CS: What about the model that Amazon and Netflix are throwing a lot of money around right now.
SR: That is true. I think it's an interesting model. I think there's something exciting about it. For content creators, I think there's something exciting about it. For the world, I think there's something exciting about it. The idea that there are programs now that can be in multiple languages with characters from all over the world that are appealing and come out for everybody at the same time is exciting. I mean, I think the international sense that television can now take on makes sense to me, that programming can now take on. Television so much is made for, like — here's our American audience. We make these shows, and then they shove them out into the world and hope for the best, as opposed to really thinking about the fact that America is not it. I mean, we love ourselves and everything, but it's not i. And we should be taking into account the fact that there are all of these other places in the world that we should be interested in while we're telling stories. It makes the world smaller. I don't know. I think it pushes forward the idea that the world is a universal place, and our stories become universal things. We stop being other.
CS: You've pioneered, as far as I can see, interesting ways to launch new shows, too. I mean, when you launched "Scandal" in 2012, there was this amazing groundswell of support on Twitter the likes of which nobody had seen before. Do you have any other tricks up your sleeve when you launch your next one? What do you think will happen in that regard?
SR: We do have some interesting ideas. We have a show called "Still Star-Crossed" coming out this summer. We have some interesting ideas for that. I'm not sure if we're going to be able to do them in time. I thought they were fun. But the idea that we would live-tweet our show was really just us thinking that would be fun. We didn't realize that the critics would start to live-tweet along with us. But the fans — getting people to be a part of it, making it more of a campfire — you know, when you're all on Twitter together and you're all talking together, it is more of a shared experience, and finding other ways to make that possible and finding other ways to make people feel engaged is important.
CS: So when you have all those different people making stories and only some of them are going to break through and get that audience somehow, how do you think storytellers will get paid?
SR: I actually have been struggling with this concept as well. Is it going to be a subscriber model? Are people going to say, like, I'm going to watch this particular person's shows, and that's how we're going to do it?
CS: I think we should buy a passport to Shondaland. Right?
SR: I don't know about that, but yeah. That's a lot more work for me. I do think that there are going to be different ways, but I don't know necessarily. I mean, I'll be honest and say a lot of content creators are not necessarily interested in being distributors, mainly because what I dream of doing is creating content. I really love to create content. I want to get paid for it and I want to get paid the money that I deserve to get paid for it, and there's a hard part in finding that. But I also want it to be made possible for, you know, the people who work with me, the people who work for me, everybody to sort of get paid in a way, and they're all making a living. How it gets distributed is getting harder and harder.
CS: How about the many new tools, you know, VR, AR ... I find it fascinating that you can't really binge-watch, you can't fast-forward in those things. What do you see as the future of those for storytelling?
SR: I spent a lot of time in the past year just exploring those, getting lots of demonstrations and paying attention. I find them fascinating, mainly because I think that — I think most people think of them for gaming, I think most people think of them for things like action, and I think that there is a sense of intimacy that is very present in those things, the idea that — picture this, you can sit there and have a conversation with Fitz, or at least sit there while Fitz talks to you, President Fitzgerald Grant III, while he talks to you about why he's making a choice that he makes, and it's a very heartfelt moment. And instead of you watching a television screen, you're sitting there next to him, and he's having this conversation. Now, you fall in love with the man while he's doing it from a television screen. Imagine sitting next to him, or being with a character like Huck who's about to execute somebody. And instead of having a scene where, you know, he's talking to another character very rapidly, he goes into a closet and turns to you and tells you, you know, what's going to happen and why he's afraid and nervous. It's a little more like theater, and I'm not sure it would work, but I'm fascinating by the concept of something like that and what that would mean for an audience. And to get to play with those ideas would be interesting, and I think, you know, for my audience, the people who watch my shows, which is, you know, women 12 to 75, there's something interesting in there for them.
CS: And how about the input of the audience? How interested are you in the things where the audience can actually go up to a certain point and then decide, oh wait, I'm going to choose my own adventure. I'm going to run off with Fitz or I'm going to run off with —
SR: Oh, the choose- your-own-adventure stories. I have a hard time with those, and not necessarily because I want to be in control of everything, but because when I'm watching television or I'm watching a movie, I know for a fact that a story is not as good when I have control over exactly what's going to happen to somebody else's character. You know, if I could tell you exactly what I wanted to happen to Walter White, that's great, but the story is not the same, and it's not as powerful. You know, if I'm in charge of how "The Sopranos" ends, then that's lovely and I have an ending that's nice and satisfying, but it's not the same story and it's not the same emotional impact.
CS: I can't stop imagining what that might be. Sorry, you're losing me for a minute.
SR: But what's wonderful is I don't get to imagine it, because Vince has his own ending, and it makes it really powerful to know that somebody else has told. You know, if you could decide that, you know, in "Jaws," the shark wins or something, it doesn't do what it needs to do for you. The story is the story that is told, and you can walk away angry and you can walk away debating and you can walk away arguing, but that's why it works. That is why it's art. Otherwise, it's just a game, and games can be art, but in a very different way.
CS: Gamers who actually sell the right to sit there and comment on what's happening, to me that's more community than storytelling.
SR: And that is its own form of campfire. I don't discount that as a form of storytelling, but it is a group form, I suppose.
CS: All right, what about the super-super — the fact that everything's getting shorter, shorter, shorter. And, you know, Snapchat now has something it calls shows that are one minute long.
SR: It's interesting. Part of me thinks it sounds like commercials. I mean, it does — like, sponsored by. But part of me also gets it completely. There's something really wonderful about it. If you think about a world in which most people are watching television on their phones, if you think about a place like India, where most of the input is coming in and that's where most of the product is coming in, shorter makes sense. If you can charge people more for shorter periods of content, some distributor has figured out a way to make a lot more money. If you're making content, it costs less money to make it and put it out there. And, by the way, if you're 14 and have a short attention span, like my daughter, that's what you want to see, that's what you want to make, that's how it works. And if you do it right and it actually feels like narrative, people will hang on for it no matter what you do.
CS: I'm glad you raised your daughters, because I am wondering how are they going to consume entertainment, and also not just entertainment, but news, too. When they're not — I mean, the algorithmic robot overlords are going to feed them what they've already done. How do you think we will correct for that and make people well-rounded citizens?
SR: Well, me and how I correct for it is completely different than how somebody else might do it.
CS: Feel free to speculate.
SR: I really don't know how we're going to do it in the future. I mean, my poor children have been the subject of all of my experiments. We're still doing what I call "Amish summers" where I turn off all electronics and pack away all their computers and stuff and watch them scream for a while until they settle down into, like, an electronic-free summer. But honestly, it's a very hard world in which now, as grown-ups, we're so interested in watching our own thing, and we don't even know that we're being fed, sometimes, just our own opinions. You know, the way it's working now, you're watching a feed, and the feeds are being corrected so that you're only getting your own opinions and you're feeling more and more right about yourself. So how do you really start to discern? It's getting a little bit disturbing. So maybe it'll overcorrect, maybe it'll all explode, or maybe we'll all just become — I hate to be negative about it, but maybe we'll all just become more idiotic.
CS: Yeah, can you picture any corrective that you could do with scripted, fictional work?
SR: I think a lot about the fact that television has the power to educate people in a powerful way, and when you're watching television — for instance, they do studies about medical shows. I think it's 87 percent, 87 percent of people get most of their knowledge about medicine and medical facts from medical shows, much more so than they do from their doctors, than from articles. So we work really hard to be accurate, and every time we make a mistake, I feel really guilty, like we're going to do something bad, but we also give a lot of good medical information. There are so many other ways to give information on those shows. People are being entertained and maybe they don't want to read the news, but there are a lot of ways to give fair information out on those shows, not in some creepy, like, we're going to control people's minds way, but in a way that's sort of very interesting and intelligent and not about pushing one side's version or the other, like, giving out the truth. It would be strange, though, if television drama was how we were giving the news.
CS: It would be strange, but I gather a lot of what you've written as fiction has become prediction this season?
SR: You know, "Scandal" has been very disturbing for that reason. We have this show that's about politics gone mad, and basically the way we've always told the show — you know, everybody pays attention to the papers. We read everything. We talk about everything. We have lots of friends in Washington. And we'd always sort of done our show as a speculation. We'd sit in the room and think, what would happen if the wheels came off the bus and everything went crazy? And that was always great, except now it felt like the wheels were coming off the bus and things were actually going crazy, so the things that we were speculating were really coming true. I mean, our season this year was going to end with the Russians controlling the American election, and we'd written it, we'd planned for it, it was all there, and then the Russians were suspected of being involved in the American election and we suddenly had to change what we were going to do for our season. I walked in and I was like, "That scene where our mystery woman starts speaking Russian? We have to fix that and figure out what we're going to do." That just comes from extrapolating out from what we thought was going to happen, or what we thought was crazy.
CS: That's great. So where else in US or elsewhere in the world do you look? Who is doing interesting storytelling right now?
SR: I don't know, there's a lot of interesting stuff out there. Obviously British television is always amazing and always does interesting things. I don't get to watch a lot of TV, mainly because I'm busy working. And I pretty much try not to watch very much television at all, even American television, until I'm done with a season, because things start to creep into my head otherwise. I start to wonder, like, why can't our characters wear crowns and talk about being on a throne? It gets crazy. So I try not to watch much until the seasons are over. But I do think that there's a lot of interesting European television out there. I was at the International Emmys and looking around and seeing the stuff that they were showing, and I was kind of fascinated. There's some stuff I want to watch and check out.
CS: Can you imagine — I know that you don't spend a lot of time thinking about tech stuff, but you know how a few years ago we had someone here at TED talking about seeing, wearing Google Glass and seeing your TV shows essentially in your eye? Do you ever fantasize when, you know — the little girl who sat on the pantry floor in your parents' house, did you ever imagine any other medium? Or would you now?
SR: Any other medium. For storytelling, other than books? I mean, I grew up wanting to be Toni Morrison, so no. I mean, I didn't even imagine television. So the idea that there could be some bigger world, some more magical way of making things —- I'm always excited when new technology comes out and I'm always the first one to want to try it. The possibilities feel endless and exciting right now, which is what excites me. We're in this sort of Wild West period, to me, it feels like, because nobody knows what we're going to settle on. You can put stories anywhere right now and that's cool to me, and it feels like once we figure out how to get the technology and the creativity of storytelling to meet, the possibilities are endless.
CS: And also the technology has enabled the thing I briefly flew by earlier, binge-viewing, which is a recent phenomenon, since you've been doing shows, right? And how do you think does that change the storytelling process at all? You always had a bible for the whole season beforehand, right?
SR: No, I just always knew where we were going to end. So for me, the only way I can really comment on that is that I have a show that's been going on for 14 seasons and so there are the people who have been watching it for 14 seasons, and then there are the 12-year-old girls I'd encounter in the grocery store who had watched 297 episodes in three weeks. Seriously, and that's a very different experience for them, because they've been inside of something really intensely for a very short period of time in a very intense way, and to them the story has a completely different arc and a completely different meaning because it never had any breaks.
CS: It's like visiting a country and then leaving it. It's a strange —
SR: It's like reading an amazing novel and then putting it down. I think that is the beauty of the experience. You don't necessarily have to watch something for 14 seasons. It's not necessarily the way everything's supposed to be.
CS: Is there any topic that you don't think we should touch?
SR: I don't think I think of story that way. I think of story in terms of character and what characters would do and what characters need to do in order to make them move forward, so I'm never really thinking of story in terms of just plot, and when writers come into my writer's room and pitch me plot, I say, "You're not speaking English." Like, that's the thing I say. We're not speaking English. I need to hear what's real. And so I don't think of it that way. I don't know if there's a way to think there's something I wouldn't do because that feels like I'm plucking pieces of plot off a wall or something.
CS: That's great. To what extent do you think you will use — You know, you recently went on the board of Planned Parenthood and got involved in the Hillary Clinton campaign. To what extent do you think you will use your storytelling in the real world to effect change?
SR: Well, you know, there's — That's an intense subject to me, because I feel like the lack of narrative that a lot of people have is difficult. You know, like, there's a lot of organizations that don't have a positive narrative that they've created for themselves that would help them. There's a lot of campaigns that could be helped with a better narrative. The Democrats could do a lot with a very strong narrative for themselves. There's a lot of different things that could happen in terms of using storytelling voice, and I don't mean that in a fiction way, I mean that in a same way that any speechwriter would mean it. And I see that, but I don't necessarily know that that's, like, my job to do that.
CS: All right.
Please help me thank Shonda. SR: Thank you.