“For her to want to open up, I’m flabbergasted,” says rapper and Jackson collaborator Q-Tip, one of the many marquee names who appeared on screen in Lifetime’s four-hour event, which debuted this year to celebrate of the 40th anniversary of her first album. Whoopi Goldberg, Missy Elliott, Mariah Carey, Regina Hall, Tyler Perry and Samuel L. Jackson also jumped at the chance to appear in the television venture.
Pretty good for a network that, in recent memory, was known for Christmas pics and made-for TV movies.
Over the past few years, Lifetime has emerged as a formidable player in the documentary space, particularly for sensitive and complex female storytelling. Lifetime prides itself on being a network for women, by women; with that, the cabler has become a go-to venue for A-listers ready to reclaim their own narrative in a safe place.
Jackson is just one of many notable names who have been in business with Lifetime. Gretchen Carlson and Robin Roberts have produced projects with the network, as have talk-show host Wendy Williams, who inked a deal to produce a documentary and movie based on her life, and Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Aly Raisman, who partnered with the network on a three-part documentary to help tell other victims’ stories about sexual harassment and assault.
Lifetime was one of the first networks willing to shed light on tough stories about abuse on women, greenlighting “Surviving R. Kelly” at the beginning of the #MeToo movement and airing the powerful docuseries in 2019, bringing Emmy recognition to the network. More importantly, it thrust the Kelly case into the spotlight. The musician had long been trailed by rumors of sexual misconduct, and Lifetime brought his survivors’ voices forward so they could no longer be ignored. In 2021, the singer was found guilty on all counts in his sex-trafficking trial.
“’Surviving R. Kelly’ definitely redefined how we approached our unscripted content. It paved the way for us to endeavor deeper into the doc world,” says Brie Bryant, Lifetime’s senior vice president of unscripted development and programming. Bryant, who served as an executive producer on both “Janet Jackson” and “Surviving R. Kelly,” says Lifetime has always been a women’s network that has excelled in “ripped from the headlines” programming.
Now, it has fully immersed itself in the documentary space, allowing women to generate their own headlines by telling their own stories on their terms.
When it came to working with Jackson, a far-and-wide reach to the correct audience was paramount for the superstar. Over her storied career, she has undoubtedly been met with appealing offers to tell her story. In a day and age when a multitude of platforms are throwing around billions of dollars for enticing content, she settled on Lifetime, which simulcast “Janet Jackson” on A&E, scoring a whopping 21.8 million viewers.
“As we understand it, both Janet and Randy [Jackson] were excited to be in business with us because they were excited about the cross-platform experience of both brands,” Bryant says. “Janet’s stardom completely captivates a very vast audience, so we made the collective decision to have the documentary series be a cross-network event — both creatively and in terms of how we launch the series.”
Jackson’s doc, which was five years in the making, was part of Lifetime’s Broader Focus initiative, which exemplifies the company’s commitment to hiring and amplifying female creators with pay above the industry average, and A+E Networks’ Voices Magnified program, designed to champion content developed and produced by diverse voices that spotlights social justice efforts.
“Janet is just the bees’ knees,” says Bryant, adding that the star has “super high standards” and was incredibly hands-on. “She was extremely vulnerable to the process and allowed us to capture such intimate, raw, celebratory and historical moments of one of the biggest pop culture stars in American history.”
A longtime fan of radio and talk show legend Williams, Bryant was part of the team at Lifetime that approached the queen of daytime gossip to come on board for a tentpole event of a scripted movie paired with a raw documentary. Turns out, Williams was a fan of Lifetime and the rest is history. Her doc, “Wendy Williams: What a Mess,” delivered staggering numbers, drawing nearly 3 million total viewers and becoming Lifetime’s No. 1 documentary at the time.
In the biopic, Williams candidly shared details on the ups-and downs of her life, including her former drug use, her ex-husband’s infidelity, being sexually abused and suffering two miscarriages. “It was bold for the ‘Hot Topic’ lady to allow us into her world, in the middle of a very public divorce and at a moment when she had become the actual hot topic,” Bryant says.
Variety has learned that Williams — whose syndicated talker, “The Wendy Williams Show,” ends its 14-year run this month — has other projects in development at Lifetime.
“We’re always excited for the ideas she has brewing,” Bryant says.
The host is among a growing list of high-profile women who have opted to bring their deeply personal stories to the network. Last September, Raisman, the Olympian who bravely testified against USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar in the sexual abuse scandal, premiered “Aly Raisman: Darkness to Light,” which told the tumultuous journey of healing from the perspective of survivors.
The gymnast says the project was “healing,” yet “challenging and triggering.” As Raisman continues her own fight — she’s among 90 women, including her teammate Simone Biles, who are suing the FBI over handling of the Nassar case — she says she created her series in hopes of giving other survivors a voice. Through production, she was able to connect with other victims who empowered her.
“Their stories and truth help validate what I am feeling,” she tells Variety.
“I feel so grateful for the support I’ve received and recognize that the majority of survivors don’t have the platform that I do,” Raisman says. “There is so much power in hearing other people’s stories — it can help others feel less alone and have the courage to speak up.”
With so many outlets from networks to streaming platforms, she was interested in Lifetime because she knew it had created projects that support survivors. Not only did Raisman’s deal come after “Surviving R. Kelly,” but also “Surviving Jeffrey Epstein,” a fourhour doc that investigated the billionaire predator and his associate Ghislaine Maxwell through the eyes of their alleged victims.
The title of her doc is named after Darkness to Light, an organization that works to prevent child sexual abuse, with which Raisman is heavily involved. The night the show aired, there was a 99% increase of calls into the RAINN sexual-abuse hotline.
“Lifetime’s commitment to telling survivors’ stories and really listening to survivors was a huge reason for wanting to partner with them,” Raisman says. “Because this was such a personal and sensitive project, it was crucial to work with a team that understood the importance and responsibility associated with telling other survivor stories.”