For years, Lifetime’s unscripted brand had been associated primarily with Project Runway. Then in 2011, Dance Moms came along, followed by the Little Women franchise. In 2017, the breakout relationship series Married at First Sight moved to Lifetime from A+E Networks sibling FYI. A year later, the network launched a Justice For Women programming block. That theme was punctuated by this year’s Surviving R. Kelly six-part documentary detailing sexual abuse allegations against Kelly, which was a ratings hit and triggered a social conversation that is still ongoing.
In an interview with Deadline, Gena McCarthy, EVP, Head of Programming, Lifetime Unscripted & Head of Programming, FYI, reveals Lifetime’s plans for following up on the success of Surviving R. Kelly with other docu series, talks about the return of Abby Lee Miller to Dance Moms and possible spinoffs of the hit reality series, and addresses whether the network would take on new fashion/design formats after ending the Project Runway deal last year,
McCarthy, who retook the reins of Lifetime’s unscripted programming 10 months ago in addition to her FYI duties, has greenlighted three new series, Cheerleader Generation (working title), Marrying Millions and Temmoraland (working title). Cheerleader Generation marks a return to the cheerleading space which Lifetime explored with the 2006 series Cheerleader Nation in an example of the network’s efforts to reinvent genre areas — and shows — as it also is mulling bringing back How To Look Good Naked.
Additionally, Lifetime will be bringing back the 2016 FYI series Bride and Prejudice, which will follow fellow FYI originals Married at First Sight and Seven Year Switch in a move to Lifetime. The series revolves around couples planning to wed despite their families’ disapproval.
“We currently develop and produce unscripted content in three anchor genres on Lifetime,” McCarthy said. “It’s the world of relationships as defined currently by Married at First Sight. We have My Great Big Live Wedding, which is a big, exciting, nerve-racking swing but it’s something that we’re just extraordinarily proud of.”
Also in the relationship area, “we have an upcoming swing, Bride and Prejudice, which is very timely, we think, that we are bringing to Lifetime. It explores sort of Romeo and Juliet people overcoming divides of race, or class, or religion in pursuit of real love and overcoming obstacles that family and friends might put up.”
Also coming up in the relationship genre is the newly picked up Marrying Millions, “which is asking that ancient question, are they together for love or for money,” McCarthy said. “It is following these unexpected couples in which one person is extraordinarily wealthy and one is not. Sometimes, it’s the standard archetype, and sometimes it’s the woman who’s wealthy and the man is not. It is a very provocative concept and a big swing for us.”
The second anchor unscripted genre, “I call it our big character, big talent wheelhouse, currently defined by performance-based shows like Dance Moms, or Bring It!, or The Rap Game. We’re bringing a mother-daughter cheerleader format back to Lifetime with Cheerleader Generation,” McCarthy said.
“We have a show called Temmoraland coming in our big character, big performance, big talent on display wheelhouse. Temmora Levy runs a bootcamp, a training school for aspiring singers in Tennessee, and she’s an amazing, lightning in a bottle character that we think will work really well the way Coach D and Abby Lee Miller really resonate with Lifetime viewers.”
Speaking of Miller, McCarthy confirmed that “a Dance Moms resurrection is under way” with the famed dance instructor who has been dealing with health issues. “That’s what we are calling it, with Abby, and back to her home town of Pittsburgh, PA where it all began, where she bred championship dancers and teams, and she’s building a new dance troupe, ready to take on nationals once again.”
Through the years, Dance Mons has produced a number of stars, including the Ziegler sisters. Is Lifetime considering expanding the franchise with shows built around former Dance Moms standouts?
“We are going back in with a fresh team,” McCarthy said. “(Miller) rebuilds her studio and her troupe of dancers. We’ve looked at spinoffs with some of the originals, and that’s not off the table, but right now, we’re focused on relaunching the mothership franchise and just reestablishing its dominance once again.”
Lifetime’s third anchor unscripted genre is documentaries/limited docuseries focused on women’s issues. “We have reignited our Justice for Women night as defined by the trailblazing success of Surviving R. Kelly,” McCarthy said. In light of that success, the network is “looking at a lot of different subjects” for docuseries.
“There is nothing I can confirm at the moment, but we’re looking at more Justice for Women tentpole miniseries events,” she said. “We’re looking at a subgenre approach that we’re calling our Caped Crusaders, women who served in various vocations in jobs, finding some of those unsung heroes that have always worked in scripted series in Lifetime’s history, but for an unscripted audience in storytelling format.”
Lifetime aired Surviving R. Kelly despite a legal threat by the musician. Asked whether the network considered not airing the docu or whether last-minute cuts were made, McCarthy said, “We took our time to do (the series) with great deliberation and with great factual research and accuracy. You have one shot to get it right with a swing like this, so we are very, very proud that we were able to share these women’s stories, in their voices, sharing their experiences, in this factual documentary event.”
More than a month after Surviving R. Kelly aired, there are still new developments, including reports of a grand jury convened in Illinois in connection with the new allegations against him. Will Lifetime do a followup?
“We continue to follow the story and we are looking at potential follow-ups,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy oversaw Lifetime’s unscripted efforts in the early 2010s, launching Dance Moms, followed by Bring It!, overseeing Project Runway and shepherding its All Stars spinoff. She then moved to help launch the rebranded sibling factual entertainment lifestyle network FYI as head of programming, developing such series as Married At First Sight, Seven Year Switch and Bride and Prejudice. “A lot of that content, particularly the relationship content, proved to be so strong that now I’ve returned to Lifetime and have brought a lot of that breakthrough, innovative relationship content with me, which is a new anchor for unscripted content on Lifetime,” she said. “Shows like Married at First Sight, which is I believe the highest-rated serialized content, certainly in unscripted, right now at the brand, and shows like Seven Year Switch.”
While Project Runway was a signature Lifetime series for a decade, the network has no intention of returning to the fashion space.
“The relationship genre that we have is closer to the natural Lifetime voice, so we’re really pushing out that strand aggressively, and it delivers a very upscale audience to Lifetime the way Runway did,” McCarthy said. “So, we’re really focusing on doing more of those homegrown relationships and big character, big talent performance wheelhouse shows, because they’re just an organic, authentic fit on Lifetime. We are looking at some transformational formats, as well, but they’d be homegrown formats in a Lifetime voice from day one.”
McCarthy gave an example of a transformational series the network is looking into.
“There were some transformational formats, like How to Look Good Naked, which is a great British format that had two seasons here,” McCarthy said. “I think that’s an interesting space to play in, so we are looking at bringing some fresh brand-defining talent to the network and transformational self-contained formats.”
Lifetime recently marked its 35th anniversary, giving McCarthy an opportunity to look back as well as ahead.
“Lifetime is a magnificent brand, and in a sense, we’re going back to basics across all of the genres and being as inventive and fresh and innovative as we can in presenting these proven genres and exciting new formats and through exciting new voices,” she said. “We’re having a great quarter, off to a fast start this year and a wonderful year lies ahead.”
Here is more information about Lifetime’s newly ordered unscripted series:
Temmoraland (working title)
Former recording artist Temmora Levy is on a mission to help future superstars achieve their highest potential through music. After her own tough upbringing in and out of foster homes, Temmora fell in love with the art of singing and performance. Today, Temmora owns Arommet Academy, an artist development academy in Memphis, providing a safe haven for talented children to escape whatever they might be going through. Juggling the challenges of training the kids while dealing with their stage parents, managing the teen girl group KARMA, and keeping up with the daily demands of motherhood and marriage, Temmora definitely has her work cut out for her. While she makes it her priority for each child to feel loved and accepted, make no mistake, Temmora is not an easy critic. If her students want to make it to the top, they better be prepared to work! Eight one-hour episodes have been ordered to debut later this year on Lifetime. Temmoraland (working title) is produced by Brian Graden Media for Lifetime with Brian Graden and Dave Mace as executive producers. Gena McCarthy, Brie Miranda Bryant and Mioshi Hill serve as executive producers for Lifetime.
Cheerleader Generation (working title)
Cheerleader Generation is a documentary series set in the exciting world of competitive cheerleading, following the lives of two squads and their fierce, hardworking coaches, Lexington Kentucky’s Dunbar High School coach Donna Martin and her daughter, Ole Miss head coach, Ryan O’Connor. While Donna pushes her team to new heights to return Dunbar to its former glory of reigning champs, Ryan is fighting to earn the respect of her peers, her collegiate team and her mother. The stakes are high as Donna and Ryan also compete to be the first ever mother-daughter coaches going after national championship titles in the same year while dealing with the real-life drama of college students trying to find their independence, high-school students trying to survive adolescence and their mothers who are trying to keep it all together too. Ten one-hour episodes have been ordered to air this year on Lifetime. Cheerleader Generation is produced by Propagate Content for Lifetime and executive produced by Ben Silverman, Howard Owens, Laurie Girion, Scott Shatsky and Karri-Leigh P. Mastrangelo. Gena McCarthy and Cat Rodriguez executive produce for Lifetime.
Relationships are complicated, but when one partner is super rich and the other is most definitely NOT, “complicated” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Marrying Millions follows six couples who are deeply in love and hoping to marry, but who come from completely different worlds. Regular people are whisked off their feet and plunged into a high-end life of riches, extravagant experiences, and glamorous trips around the globe. It sounds like a modern-day fairytale, but it’s definitely not all champagne and caviar. On the road to the altar, the couples must try to bridge their vast differences and fit into each other’s alien worlds. Ten one-hour episodes have been ordered to air for this year. Marrying Millions is produced by Sharp Entertainment for Lifetime. Gena McCarthy and James Bolosh executive produce for Lifetime.