Once again, Realscreen highlights several individuals whose work is impacting the non-fiction screen content industry, and the entertainment world in general. From exposing injustice to celebrating and promoting diversity on camera and behind the scenes, these Trailblazers are taking risks that are paying off, and paving the way for progress. Look for more of our Trailblazers for the year here, in the days ahead. Here, we feature Lifetime’s EVP and head of unscripted programming, Gena McCarthy (left), and the network’s SVP of unscripted development and programming, Brie Miranda Bryant (right).
Just over one year ago, on Jan. 3, A+E Networks’ Lifetime premiered its hotly anticipated six-part docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, laying bare allegations against the R&B singer who has been dogged by rumors of abuse, predatory behavior and pedophilia for years. The first episode delivered a whopping 1.9 million viewers and instantly became Lifetime’s best unscripted performance in more than three years.
The explosive series saw scores of Kelly’s accusers speak publicly for the first time, sparking a national conversation amid the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. In response to the allegations, musicians had their past collaborations with Kelly removed from streaming sites and other platforms. Kelly’s longtime label RCA Records dropped him after a long period of pressure from #MuteRKelly activists. And in February, Kelly was charged with 10 counts of sexual abuse in Chicago.
Now, Lifetime is taking the momentum even further. The network recently partnered with Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, who helped to expose the sexual abuse scandal involving USA Gymnastics coach Larry Nassar, for the documentary From Darkness to Light. It’s developing other tentpole docuseries, too, following the show’s success. Its latest, Hopelessly In Love, will take a deep dive into love stories of infamous people in pop culture.
Brie Miranda Bryant, SVP of unscripted development and programming at Lifetime and executive producer of Surviving R. Kelly, says the Surviving approach to storytelling is in the net’s DNA.
“You’ll definitely see more from us in this genre with premieres of Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning and Surviving Jefferey Epstein in 2020,” Bryant says. “We will also continue to produce stories that are holistically reflective of the multifaceted women who watch our network.”
What has it meant to you to witness the impact of Surviving R. Kelly over the last year?
BMB: Honestly, being able to tell this story has been one of our biggest privileges… Lifetime is a brand that is brave and bold — despite gun threats and legal threats, the network has never backed down from its commitment to share these women’s stories and lift up and amplify their voices.
What were some of the biggest lessons you learned through the making of Surviving R. Kelly?
BMB: This isn’t a story that hadn’t been told before. There were two documentaries on the same topic that premiered just last year. There are reporters who have been religiously covering this story for almost three decades. And so we had to sit back and think about how to go about putting the puzzle pieces together differently.
And what we realized was that it would be more valuable to our survivors and to us, from a storytelling and corroboration standpoint, to have as many people paint a picture of the last 30 years as possible. The more people who sat down to tell their story, the stronger the story would become.
In the end, it took 54 strong individuals to sit down and do that. Therefore, the biggest lesson for us was about the strength and power of numbers.
GM: While every survivor story is singular to their experience, when you witness and listen to the collective experience, the horror and the pain is overwhelming… The power of that collective female voice is something that is informing how we are producing Surviving Jeffrey Epstein.
How does the show serve as an example of the potential documentary series can have in shifting public perception?
BMB: At some point, the conversation transcended the documentary and became a much needed conversation around sexual violence… By being a catalyst to spark conversations, we hope people feel less shame in speaking out and asking for help. The bravery needed to speak about such circumstances makes these scenarios less taboo. And with that, as we’ve seen, comes change.
What do you foresee as some of the biggest challenges for the unscripted industry in the year ahead?
GM: I think it’s just the sheer volume of content that’s out there. What I always say to my team, and I say to myself, is to stay on target… Great content transcends any distribution platform.
This story first appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Realscreen Magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.