Some television creators depend on large doses of caffeine, sugar or pharmaceuticals to help them do their jobs. Kenya Barris takes a different approach. “I’m one of those guys who is fueled by my fear,” says Barris, who created ABC’s Black-ish and its hit spinoff, Freeform’s Grown-ish. “I use that to remind me to dot my i’s and cross my t’s, and everything else that goes along with someone who is constantly neurotic and thinking that everything is going to fall apart.”
Barris is going to have plenty of that fuel to draw on, now that he has departed longtime home ABC Studios and signed a lucrative new deal with Netflix, which could be worth as much as $100 million. He’s following in the footsteps of other top-tier creators like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy who have left broadcast and cable TV for the streaming behemoth. “It’s very daunting,” Barris says. “The notion of leaving somewhere that I was really comfortable and going somewhere that puts this much trust in me makes me feel like … I want to be really successful.”
Barris—Adweek’s TV Creator of the Year—has already enjoyed plenty of success on TV, with hits Black-ish (which was nominated this year for five Emmys, including outstanding comedy series) and Grown-ish (the No. 1 cable comedy last season with females ages 18-34 and 12-34). He helped reinvent the family comedy with Black-ish by mining his personal life for stories, including a pivotal multi-episode arc last season during which parents Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) briefly split—which mirrored Barris’ own separation and reconciliation with his wife, also named Bow. “I knew it was time for me to start thinking outside of network television,” says Barris of the storyline, noting that when he was growing up, TV couples bickered but never had serious arguments. “We said that we were a family show, and sometimes being a family show does not mean making people laugh. Sometimes it’s about making people reflect.”
That approach is also what drove Barris last season to write and direct a controversial, and ultimately shelved, Black-ish episode, in which Dre tells his infant son Devante a bedtime story about his first year that incorporated real-life events, like Donald Trump and NFL player protests during the national anthem. After weeks of back and forth with ABC over the show’s content, he and the network agreed to pull the episode just days before it was supposed to air in February. When that happened, “I knew that the time had come” to leave ABC Studios, even though he had just signed a new deal one year earlier, Barris says. “I wanted to go tell different kinds of stories, and I didn’t want to have that extra step that is absolutely necessary in network television.”
After announcing his ABC Studios exit in July, Barris signed his megadeal with Netflix two weeks later. “It came 100 percent down to creative freedom,” he says, noting that chief content officer Ted Sarandos and vp of original series Cindy Holland “were looking for people who could execute shows at a high level and had something that they wanted to say, and that’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted the opportunity to have something to say, have the support of my backer, financially, and at the same time, have some freedom in doing it.”
He’s already hard at work, developing several potential TV projects for Netflix that include “a flipped-on-your-head version of what a family show is,” as well as series adaptations of books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a documentary “based off of one of my favorite moments in life” and a possible stand-up special with Black-ish and Grown-ish actor Deon Cole.