Lifetime has redefined the docuseries for a new generation of viewers with its provocative, sometimes controversial focus on headline-grabbing topics and personalities. From limited series such as Surviving R. Kelly — which focused on singer R. Kelly’s history of alleged sexual abuse — to culture-challenging shows like Married at First Sight, the network continues to serve its targeted female audiences in authentic and innovative ways.
Leading the network’s programming charge is Gena McCarthy, executive VP and head of programming, Lifetime Unscripted & FYI, who recently spoke to R. Thomas Umstead, Multichannel News senior content producer, programming, about the basic cable network’s nonfiction programming strategy.
How is Lifetime’s heavy focus on docuseries helping to shape the network brand? We had tremendous success with tentpole documentaries. The gigantic headline that worked from a cultural and female empowerment point of view was Surviving R. Kelly. Because that one was so explosively strong on every possible level, we strategically expanded our approach to the genre, including literally expanding the Surviving franchise with Surviving R. Kelly Part 2: The Reckoning and Surviving Jeffrey Epstein.
How transcendent was the Surviving R. Kelly franchise? The series led to a 40% increase in calls to help lines, which we are incredibly proud of, but it also led us to expanding our reach with other stories. There are many others coming down the pipeline.
Why are Lifetime’s bioseries resonating with female viewers? I think authenticity is key. The stories that resonate best with viewers are those that they are familiar with. Relationships are the North Star for everything from a content point of view on Lifetime right now, so being able to tell these stories through that lens of intimate relationships is something that our audiences want. These stories have such famous — and sometimes infamous — highs and lows and twists, which we learned our viewers crave, whether it's in a movie of the week, a scripted series or a best performing documentary series that we offer, [so] it’s worked really well. We’re also developing biomovies; there is a Wendy Williams movie and documentary that’s coming through, and we’re constantly developing movies that tell the stories of women that have inspiring, controversial and dramatic — but always authentic — life stories that work so brilliantly with our audience.
What’s been Lifetime’s secret to maintaining the success of its iconic brand in the face of competition from female-targeted cable and streaming services? We use a phrase called ‘outrageously relatable characters and stories,’ and when we get it right it leads to incredibly well-performing series like Dance Moms and Married at First Sight, which is the best performing content on the brand. We have a show called Bride & Prejudice, which types into the cultural zeitgeist right now. Having these outrageously relatable stories — all told through a relationship filter that has a provocative bite to it — works incredibly well for Lifetime.
How well is Lifetime positioned for the evolving media landscape? The proliferation of places to watch and what to watch is astonishing and sometimes overwhelming, but what we always talk about on our teams is great content will always win, and great content transcends any distribution platform.
What’s on your DVR? Every episode of Big Bang Theory; women’s NCAA volleyball championships.
Books on your nightstand?Hostage by Kristina Ohlsson; The Witch Elm by Tana French
Favorite food destination? Primanti Brothers: Best comfort food in hometown Pittsburgh, ever. A full meal inside two giant slabs of bread.
Bucket list destination? Fiji — to swim and read 24/7.
Favorite podcast?The Daily
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.
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