CANNES, France – It started with Thorngate, the fictional U.S. government electronic spying program that appeared on hit series “Scandal” before the world had ever heard of Edward Snowden.
“We came up with this concept: Your phone can listen to what you’re doing, your computers can be switched on to watch you, and we made all this stuff up and thought it was really funny,” said “Scandal” producer Shonda Rhimes. “And three months later, we found out it was real.”
After that, so many of the show’s inventions ended up having real-life analogues – including an “outspoken, crazy Republican candidate running for president…who says really appalling things” – that eventually, Rhimes recalled with a laugh, “somebody in the room was like, ‘I think we’re witches,’ and I said, ‘We’re not witches.'”
It was one of many anecdotes Rhimes shared during a keynote speech Wednesday at Mipcom in Cannes, where the powerhouse producer is being honored as Personality of the Year. She told the packed auditorium about her journey to the top of her profession and about how broadcasting standards and practices had changed over the years.
“Before I started working in television, the standards were very loose and then got tighter again. In the ‘NYPD Blue’ era, it was very loose and then got tighter again. And then now, things have reached a nice place where it feels like it’s realistic. A lot of it is how America has changed,” said Rhimes, whose banner Shondaland has five shows on ABC.
The attitude toward gay couples – and what could be shown on air about them – is a case in point.
“The standards have changed to match the American people. The same way gay marriage is now legal in every state in the nation, you can now show gay couple kissing and it’s not a big deal,” Rhimes said.
“I remember in Season 2 or 3 of ‘Grey’s [Anatomy],’ when Callie was dating somebody [and] she was going to run up her hand on the woman’s thigh, it was a big deal. I had to fight about it and almost had to call GLAAD,” the gay-rights organization, said Rhimes. “That seems really silly now and almost puritanical. But at the time, it was a huge moment.”
Rhimes said her own passion for TV blossomed after watching the entire season of “24” in a day.
“I had just adopted a baby and had lot of time to watch television. So I watched the entire season of ’24’ in 24 hours. Then I watched three seasons of ‘Buffy.’ I just realized I want to do TV….This is where character development is happening,” Rhimes recalled.
The first pilot she wrote was about war correspondents and it had all the ingredients that would later characterize “Grey’s Anatomy” – the cut-throat rivalry, women thriving in a male-dominated environment, long hours, and lots of fun and lots of sex. “But we were at war, so it didn’t feel very appropriate,” said Rhimes, who instead transposed these elements to the medical world to come up with “Grey’s Anatomy,” where characters perform surgeries instead of covering wars.
With the show now in its 13th season, Rhimes said she’s learned a great deal about medicine. “I can perform a C-section. I can do it. I’m probably very dangerous because I know just enough to do a lot of things but not enough to save anybody’s life,” quipped Rhimes, drawing cheers from the audience.