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Millions watched new TV docuseries about abuse allegations against R. Kelly

By January 8, 2019Entertainment News

About 2 million people tuned in to watch the premieres of each of the six episodes of the new docuseries that explores the abuse allegations against Chicago R&B superstar R. Kelly, according to Nielsen numbers released Tuesday.

“Surviving R. Kelly” — which initially aired in two-hour blocks on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and re-aired later — was a ratings boon for the Lifetime network. Network representatives touted the show as Lifetime’s “strongest non-fiction series in seven years.”

The series became more popular as it aired. There were about 1.8 million viewers for Thursday’s premiere and 2.3 million viewers for Saturday’s finale. The TV show delved into Kelly’s childhood on the South Side; his musical career, which includes hits “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Ignition (Remix)”; his acquittal on child pornography charges in a 2008 Cook County trial; and his troubled relationships with African-American women. Multiple women claimed on the series that Kelly physically, sexually and mentally abused them. He is also accused of running a so-called “sex cult.”

Kelly, who was born Robert Kelly and turned 52 years old on Tuesday, has denied the abuse and cult allegations and did not participate in the series. There are reports that the series sparked renewed interest in Kelly’s music, but chatter on social media about the series also called attention to groups that seek to end violence against women.

R. Kelly accuser still believes she did the right thing, she says as part of six-hour ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ doc »

Scheherazade Tillet, co-founder and executive director of A Long Walk Home, said her Chicago-based organization saw an uptick in donations, social media followers and programming opportunities thanks to the series and tweets by singer John Legend and Eve Ewing, a Chicago writer and sociologist of education.

A Long Walk Home, which was founded in 2003, uses art to educate and inspire young people to end violence against girls and women. Tillet said she and her sister, co-founder Salamishah Tillet, helped get Kelly’s accusers counseling services on the “Surviving R. Kelly” set.

The Tillets said 187 people gave donations that totaled nearly $10,000 from Jan. 3-7 — which coincided with the premiere of the series and subsequent re-airings. Nearly all of the 187 donors were new contributors to A Long Walk Home, Scheherazade Tillet said.

There were 364 financial donors in 2018 — the organization’s best year yet because of the #MeToo movement. The group, which hosts events on college campuses about sexual assault, is also now branching out into different spaces. It’s slated to participate in a conversation about “Surviving R. Kelly” at a South Side nail salon Friday.

“For us, being a grassroots organization, it’s nice to see that (the series) is actually reaching us,” Scheherazade Tillet said. “You actually see a shift from the mainstream #MeToo movement to reaching our young girls in Chicago, and I think this (series) is allowing these conversations and dialogue to happen.”

“Surviving R. Kelly” is not the only TV project about Kelly on tap. A fictionalized Lifetime network movie is in development. Chicago journalist Jim DeRogatis, whose decades of reporting on Kelly served as the basis for “Surviving R. Kelly,” is working on a separate film project with BuzzFeed and documentary director Lyric Cabral. DeRogatis did not participate in “Surviving R. Kelly.”

The series has been much discussed in the media, including on Monday’s episode of “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.” Correspondent Roy Wood Jr. pointed out that TV news reports about the series have featured snippets of Kelly’s hits, which may be why his music is gaining a new following despite the allegations against him.

Wood devised the “R. Kelly Challenge,” which is inspired by the popular Netflix movie “Bird Box.” Characters in the movie wear blindfolds so they can avoid coming face to face with an ominous unseen entity. Wood suggests people put blindfolds over their ears so they can “focus on what (Kelly) did and not get seduced by his music.”

tswartz@tribpub.com

Twitter @tracyswartz

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