Nets See ‘Genius’ inAfrican-AmericanMusic Biographies

A biography series on the life and career of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, debuting this fall on National Geographic will build on other networks’ successes with scripted movies and limited series profiling African-American musical artists.

Cynthia Erivo plays the Queen of Soul in Nat Geo’s series ‘Genius: Aretha.’ 

Cynthia Erivo plays the Queen of Soul in Nat Geo’s series ‘Genius: Aretha.’ 

From Lifetime’s April biopic The Clark Sisters, chronicling the award-winning gospel group, to BET’s series American Soul, about Soul Train creator and host Don Cornelius, networks have drummed up big ratings for scripted programming content showcasing African-American performers.

“Music docupics are a real equalizer,” Lifetime executive VP of movies, limited series and original movie acquisitions Tanya Lopez said. “Music resonates on all levels to all cultures, so you really get a peek into how the music came to be.”

Lifetime has hit the right notes with a series of biopics tailored to its female-targeted audience. Its April 11 movie The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel averaged 2.7 million viewers, making it the network’s most-watched original movie of the year so far. It was Lifetime’s biggest audience for an original movie since 2016, when Toni Braxton: Unbreak My Heart, about the popular R&B singer, drew 3.6 million viewers.

“We’re super-serving an underserved audience,” Lopez said. “I don’t think the audience for these movies is strictly African-American, but that’s a huge component of its success, because these artists are known and revered in the African-American community but may not have the same exposure outside of it.”

TV One VP of original programming and production Robyn Greene Arrington said movies such as The Bobby DeBarge Story also offer content that features lead African-American actors and actresses playing artists that have created iconic and identifiable music that resonates with the African-American community. The 2019 film about the lead singer of 1970s funk and R&B band Switch was TV One’s most-watched original movie that year, averaging 1.2 million viewers.

BET’s ‘American Soul’

BET’s ‘American Soul’

“Black people have a certain affinity to music, and those artists are part of our life,” Arrington said. “Music is the soundtrack of the important events in our lives, so we almost see those people intimately in our world, even more so than an actor or an actress.”

The beat goes on for the genre as several new movies and series are in development. Along with Nat Geo’s Genius: Aretha — starring Harriet actress Cynthia Erivo, it was moved to the fall from May after the pandemic shut down production — Lifetime in 2021 will air a bio movie focusing on 1980s R&B rap group Salt-N-Pepa, according to Lopez.

On the series front, BET is in development on Uptown, a three-part miniseries about the 1986 R&B/rap record label founded by Andre Harrell. Uptown follows the network’s sophomore series American Soul.

“These biopics take a character that you may know and make them relatable in terms of their struggles and journeys,” BET executive VP of specials, music programming and music strategy Connie Orlando said. “The world is finally catching onto what we always knew, and that is that our stories are not only important but have mainstream appeal.” 

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.