As “Love After Lockup” approached its premiere date on We TV in Jan. 2018, Matt Sharp — the reality guru founder of Industrial Media’s Sharp Entertainment, and the executive producer of “90 Day Fiancé” — had a feeling it was going to be a hit. The show follows couples who’ve met through prison dating websites who are trying to make the relationship work after the prisoner has been released. The idea had come out of the network’s “pitch fest,” an annual all-hands brainstorm meeting, in 2016. After going to Sharp to find out whether the show was even castable — it was — “Love After Lockup” was greenlit. And as it got closer to airing, Sharp felt “bullish” because company staffers kept gathering “outside of the edit room, and poking their heads in,” he said in a recent interview.
“Not because they have to,” Sharp said with a laugh, “but because they’ve been sucked in by the show.” He reported those anecdotal findings to Lauren Gellert, We’s executive vice president of development and original programming — who also happens to be Sharp’s friend from the University of Vermont, with whom he’d then worked at VH1 in the ‘90s. “I actually do remember Matt telling me that early on,” Gellert recalled. “I said, ‘Well, that’s a good sign.’”
The first season of “Love After Lockup” premiered on Friday nights, and it grew weekly, despite the fact that there was almost no marketing behind the show. In its second season, with a new cast, the show grew even more. Its 2019 spinoff, “Life After Lockup,” follows couples who’ve gotten through the initial post-prison release, and are making a go of it. The idea was a natural — and one the audience revealed they wanted in their searches for information about how the couples were faring. Sharp said, “These are real people, real relationships.”
And soon there will be another addition to the franchise, Variety can exclusively reveal: “Love During Lockup,” which will show how these relationships start, is currently in production and will premiere on We in January.
“Life After Lockup” and “Love After Lockup” are now the two top-rated programs on the network; they’ve been game-changers for We. The franchise’s growth in Nielsen ratings has greatly improved We’s fortunes in its target demographics on Friday nights.
In 2017, the year before “Love After Lockup” premiered, among viewers aged 18 to 49 and 25 to 54, We was 22nd on Fridays in primetime; it’s now ranked third and fifth, respectively, in those demos. Among women pre-“Lockup,” We was No. 14 among 18 to 49 year-olds and No. 10 in 25 to 54; now it’s No. 1 for the year in both. The shows are also incredibly popular among Black viewers, and We’s Friday nights shot to No. 1 among Black viewers in 2019 all of the sales demographics, rankings it still holds. In Nielsen’s Live + 3 ratings, both “Love After Lockup” and “Life After Lockup” draw more than a million viewers for almost every episode.
Both “Love” and “Life” have also become niche obsessions online. During Season 2, “Love After Lockup” Facebook groups and Reddit threads began to pop up organically, and it would regularly trend on Twitter during the episodes. Those are less tangible markers than ratings, but are vital, Gellert said: “It keeps us in the conversation.”
The popularity of the shows has directly affected We’s bottom line as well, which is what matters most in a linear cable environment. According to internal network data, since “Love After Lockup” premiered in Jan. 2018, its CPMs have doubled, and the revenue it’s brought to We has tripled — with the biggest advertisers purposefully buying time on the series coming from retail, restaurants and health. And in this age of streaming, We has put the shows on ALLBLK, one of corporate parent AMC’s streaming services, which is geared toward Black viewers.
So what’s drawing audiences to the franchise? “Matt and I talk about this a lot,” Gellert said. “The appeal to us both, I think, has always been hope.
“The hope for the good life to follow — the hope for love, the hope for a relationship,” she continued. “And for the person on the outside, a lot of times you’re hearing these people say, ‘Love has just never worked out for me. And I don’t know, I just decided to go down this crazy road.’”
For some viewers, “Love After Lockup” is an amusing spectacle, one utterly foreign to their lives. For others, it’s more familiar, according to Sharp: “There are over two million prisoners in this country. This is a reality to a lot of Americans.”
Inherent in the show is a darkness. The cast comprises prisoners who’ve been convicted of crimes that are on the more acceptable end to viewers, such as robbery and drug crimes; these aren’t rapists or murderers. But two former cast members — Alla Subbotina from Season 1 and Tracie Wagaman from Season 2 — have died of drug overdoses, and there’s also been a fair amount of recidivism among the cast.
“When someone has been in prison, it’s a serious thing,” Sharp said. “And they’ve dealt with serious things in their lives. You’re going to tackle some of those issues in a show like this.
“At the same time, this show is about love,” he added. “And trying to get your life on track.”
The shows can also be quite funny, as the cast members’ projections and willful denial are revealed on camera. Gellert said the shows traffic in the cast’s “dreams that they had coming true — or the absolute disaster that ensues in their relationship.”
“Love During Lockup” was an obvious extension of the brand, Sharp said. According to the producer behind roughly 50 zillion installments of “90 Day Fiancé” for TLC, “From a creative standpoint, we’re always thinking about elements of a particular show that are kind of getting a short shrift.”
Yes, “Love After Lockup” would explain a couple’s origin story, but the full stories of how they’d met weren’t being told. “We always have talked a lot about the importance in an authentic series like this of capturing firsts,” Sharp said. “Not just talking about firsts, like, ‘We did this, we did that.’ But actually being there.”
By “backing up the timeline,” Sharp said, “Love During Lockup” will bear witness to those firsts. And, Gellert said, if the prisoner has a release date on the horizon, “You could ultimately end up seeing that ‘Love During’ couple in ‘Love After.’”
Whereas casting for dating shows, especially “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” has been flooded by clout chasers in search of careers as influencers, Sharp said there is no such nonsense in the “Love”/“Life” franchise.
“Certainly as shows get more are successful, of course you’re going to have people that are potentially wanting to be on a show because they want to raise their social media platform,” he said. “We are on high alert for anyone that feels that way.”
Someone like Brittany Santiago, who was featured on the second season of “Love After Lockup,” and in subsequent seasons of “Life After Lockup,” has become a huge success story. After prison, and some bumps in the road with Marcelino, her non-con boyfriend (to use the show’s nomenclature), Santiago’s become a realtor, and the couple has had two children together. She now has 172,000 followers on Instagram, and is committed to helping others who are where she was just a few years ago.
Brittany and Marcelino are Gellert and Sharp’s favorite couple, and are, in reality TV parlance, in it for the right reasons.
In speaking about Brittany’s journey on the show, Gellert said it’s the authenticity of what she’s been through that draws viewers to her. “She goes for a really, truly, ‘I can’t believe this second chance at life I got after prison, and I just want to help others.’
“But she’s not looking at us as a network and saying, ‘So why don’t you guys amp up my Twitter account? And make me more famous?’”