SXSW: How the Success of ‘Bridgerton’ Sets the Tone for Shondaland’s Next Chapter

Shondaland is known for creating TV hits, but with “Bridgerton,” Shonda Rhimes’ media label struck gold. But, for the Shondaland media team, success isn’t simply measured by the number of viewers who’ve streamed the Netflix series (although a record-breaking 82 million households is certainly nothing to sneeze at).

Thanks to longstanding talent relationships and executives who are knowledgeable about what makes their fans so loyal, each segment of the brand works to serve one goal — giving audiences a 24/7 content experience.

Shondaland executives Chris DiIorio (chief strategy & business development officer), Sandie Bailey (chief design and digital media officer), Alison Eakle (EVP, head of creative content) and Tom Verica (senior creative production advisor) joined Variety for a discussion as part of SXSW’s virtual festival to explain how the synergies within the company work.

“With our move to Netflix, and the launch of Shondaland.com and Shondaland audio, it allows us the opportunity now to tell any story that we want, and determine the best and most entertaining way to share that with our audience,” DiIorio said.

“Now that we are kind of telling stories in different ways than we had been before through these different mediums, it’s more important than ever that we have a set of values that we always look through that lens on no matter what story we’re telling,” he continued. “Making sure that our stories align with our core values of being boldly creative, innovative, global and human-centric. And that model, with these new verticals, allows us to start telling a story in one area of the company and use the other areas of the company to continue or build on that conversation.”

So, after the success of “Bridgerton,” the company’s first scripted series to debut as part of Rhimes’ massive deal with Netflix, the next move was to launch the official podcast with Shondaland Audio, where fans can come to learn more about the behind the scenes of the saucy series. They can also find exclusive content about the show on Shondaland.com.

“We look at it as an opportunity to create more content in these mediums,” Bailey explained. “We really look at those ways that we can create immersive experiences and pieces people can choose to enjoy in whatever time they might have.”

Bailey also reflected on the launch of “Katie’s Crib” in 2018 as an early example of the way the company has interacted with fans across mediums. The podcast is hosted by “Scandal” star Katie Lowes, who is set to reteam with Shondaland for the upcoming miniseries “Inventing Anna.”

“As we were transitioning away from ‘Scandal,’ we went to Katie and saw an opportunity there. She was pregnant with her first child, and we said, ‘How would you like to tell your story to your fans and the Shondaland viewers? [And] have your conversations about motherhood?’ And that’s sort of how we got into podcasting,” she said. “And we have used that model to continue on. Also, we figured out that we could expand and tell stories we weren’t telling yet on television.”

Laverne Cox is a similar case: she hosts a self-titled podcast for Shondaland Audio (in partnership with iHeartRadio) and will appear in “Inventing Anna.” She also contributed a lengthy op-ed to the Shondaland.com site about her documentary “Disclosure,” which explores transgender representation in entertainment.

“Our fans do not simply watch the show, walk away and move on with their lives,” Eakle agreed. “They never have since ‘Grey’s,’ since ‘Scandal,’ since ‘Murder,’ and seeing it with ‘Bridgerton,’ whether they’re going off to create a musical or a meme, it’s amazing that we can now, in a fully integrated way, be available to them with more content.”

Another example of the synergy comes with the upcoming scripted podcast “#Matter,” from burgeoning writer-director Dylan Brown. The series, told through the lens of a reporter looking back at a case of police brutality, started in Eakle’s television development department before landing with Bailey’s digital team.

“It had so many of the things that we look for in terms of a story that gets us excited,” Eakle said, explaining that she realized the story would be “better told in shorter installations, each one of which still leaves you on a cliffhanger.”

Eakle said she and Verica discussed the concept of old radio plays and the idea that sometimes it’s “more emotionally impactful, or scarier, or more surprising, how you piece together the moments and how you visualize it just listening.”

“I think there’s something incredibly powerful in hearing this story unfold, that allows the audience to really fill in the blanks themselves, which might shine a light on their own experiences, their own prejudices, their own interactions with this reality,” Eakle said. “And it started to make sense, like, ‘Maybe this starts as a podcast.’”

Once the Shondaland Audio team took over, Bailey also enlisted Verica’s help in prepping the project.

“I took the scripts to Tom and I said, ‘Will you help us, will you take a look at this?’” Bailey recalled. “And Tom absolutely understands the Shonda-ism better than many people do and he really can guide that talent and can look at it from a different perspective.”

Verica, who officially joined the Shondaland team in February as head of creative production, may be the newest executive on the block, but she has been involved with Rhimes’ company for more than a decade.

He first directed a few episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2007 before appearing on camera in a 2008 episode. Since then, Verica has directed episodes of most of Rhimes’ shows (including “Private Practice,” “Still Star Crossed” and “Station 19”), served as an exec producer on “Scandal” and “For the People” and, of course, memorably played the pivotal role of Sam Keating in “How to Get Away With Murder.” But what fans may not know is that Verica has had a hand in bringing in new voices to direct Shondaland projects, recruiting talent like Ava DuVernay (fresh off her Sundance hit “Middle of Nowhere”) to the table.

But working in podcasting was still a new medium for the experienced director.

However, Verica said, “I read this script and immediately was taken with it. It was different than the normal format of what we had and I just thought the talent that was behind Dylan in writing and directing this and having discussions with him about working with actors, it’s the same approach that we have in everything.”

“It’s the same approach I have when directors come in and need to learn the style of the show or what the language of our company is,” he explained. “I’m able to shorthand those things and really kind of focus and harness what works and what might work and offer up suggestions.”

That’s because crafting captivating storytelling is the heart of Shondaland’s mission, no matter the medium. Previewing Shondaland’s next big series “Inventing Anna,” which is based on the New York Magazine article “How Anna Delvey Tricked New York’s Party People,” Eakle explained why the new show is a good fit for the Shondaland audience.

“It is always a question of ‘Have we ever done this before? Or have we ever seen this before?’ And if not, that’s when we get interested,” she explained. “Especially if it’s like, ‘we’ve never seen it before quite like this’ or if it’s taking us into a world where other people may have explored it in a comedy or in a feature, but no one’s dug into a scripted drama; we get fired up about that.”

The same is true for Shondaland’s new unscripted content, like the “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” documentary, which centered on Shondaland producer and star Debbie Allen’s DADA dance studio and debuted on Netflix last year.

At the end of the day, Eakle said, “It’s the characters, it’s the people. If we feel like we’re about to hear a story we’ve never heard before or watch someone make a decision we’d never have the guts to or would that makes us want to scream at them ‘no, please don’t do that,’ we know we’re onto something, because that’s ultimately how our audience and our fans are gonna feel too.”