by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, The Grio
Oprah Winfrey attends at the 3rd annual Diane Von Furstenberg awards at the United Nations on March 9, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)
Rapper 50 Cent once snarked that Oprah was only relevant to middle-aged white women. But, with the queen of talk now at the helm of her eponymous Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), the mogul’s channel seems to be aggressively courting black female baby boomers — a demo Nielsen has identified as the most lucrative for advertisers out of the nearly 43 million African-American households in America. On October 1, OWN announced an exclusive partnership with Tyler Perry who, with his Madea franchise and ancillary titles, boasts a loyal fan base of black women. Perry’s following has consistently driven box office blowouts for his movie premieres, and top ratings for his television projects. Perry will create two original scripted series for OWN set to debut next year.
OWN’s partnership with Perry follows the successful premiere of its reality series Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, which stars African-American soul food restaurateur Robbie Montgomery. It also comes on the heels of the two-part premiere of Iyanla: Fix My Life, OWN’s best series debut ever, which snagged the number two ratings slot for all cable shows in its time slot and ranked number one in African-American homes. Featuring famed life coach Iyanla Vanzant overseeing the tearful confessions and image makeover of Basketball Wives star Evelyn Lozada, the show’s debut success signaled a breakthrough for the heretofore-flailing OWN — and a significant point of programming differentiation.
While VH1 has long built a following of millions around the Basketball Wives and Love and Hip Hop franchises, the shows’ controversial content has alienated many black women. Under fire for gratuitous violence among castmates and the overall negative depictions of platonic and romantic relationships among blacks, the flack culminated in a May 2012 petition to boycott Basketball Wives. Soon after, Lozada’s surprising allegations of domestic violence against her then-husband Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson led to the cancellation of the duo’s spinoff series Ev and Ocho.
This has created an opportunity for OWN to nab black female viewers by leveraging Oprah’s penchant for prescriptive soul work to attract this audience using star personalities as catalysts for spurring personal improvement.
“Oprah has said from the onset that she wants to create a different network,” OWN President Erik Logan told the Grio, explaining his boss’s maxim that the network’s shows promote “fun, love, and light.” Though Sweetie Pie’s star Montgomery is a former Ikette, and Vanzant is a bestselling author that once had her own talk show, the crux of both programs are the relatable struggles and triumphs that come with facing life’s challenges and overcoming personal demons. Likewise, OWN’s Life Class, Master Class, Super Soul Sunday, and Oprah’s Next Chapter cast the network’s biggest celebrity talent — Oprah herself — in the familiar role of probing truth-seeker and resolution-facilitator.
These types of offerings, in addition to the first season of Beverly’s Full House on OWN, which focused on the family dynamics of black supermodel Beverly Johnson, have given the network a rudder with which to steer towards success. African-American women appear to be the prime fuel driving it forward.
This breakthrough has come on the heels of major retooling at OWN. Since its January 1, 2011 debut, the network has struggled to find an audience. In its first week, Oprah’s network garnered a respectable, but underwhelming 505,000 viewers with average primetime viewership slipping to a little more than half that number. The original schedule of shows focused on experts Oprah had groomed during her talk show heyday, but failed to excite viewers. The resulting restructuring efforts led to changes at the top with a new CEO coming on board in May 2011 before Oprah took on the Chief Executive and Chief Creative Officer roles herself in July 2011. In March 2012, 30 employees were laid off.
With Oprah in control, more shows featuring black women found itself in OWN’s production pipeline. But unlike the black female-oriented fare at VH1, OWN is keeping things more positive — a move that has paid off.
While not commenting directly on the increased prominence of black women, Logan told theGrio that the strong performance of their current programming coupled with the Tyler Perry deal signal fresh momentum for OWN. “The network has seen ten consecutive months of growth year over year. We are seeing certainly the highest ratings that we have achieved.”
He added, “I would say our best days are ahead of us.”
Yet, boycott petitions notwithstanding, Basketball Wives and similar reality shows continue to top viewing preferences in African-American households. Just last week, between Basketball Wives LA and the Love & Hip Hop spinoff Chrissy and Mr. Jones, VH1 drew more than two million black household viewers. In the six month period between December 26, 2011 and June 24, 2012 VH1 programming dominated the top 10 primetime programs viewed by African-Americans age 18-49. Love & Hip Hop, Basketball Wives, Single Ladies, T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle, and La La’s Full Court Life lured over 7 million viewers collectively.
Meanwhile, a week after Iyanla’s sterling debut with Lozada, OWN failed to sustain the ratings peak, losing ground to the aforementioned VH1 shows.
Despite this, OWN’s Logan believes the Tyler Perry deal will build the network’s viewership. He stressed that the channel’s programming strategy is less about targeting a specific racial or gender demo than it is about stories that transcend those constructs. Pointing out that Iyanla has since coached individuals of all races, he says, “Viewers, when they turn on the television, they want to see a mirror reflection of themselves.” The reflection Logan is referring to isn’t skin deep. “When you look at a show like Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, Miss Robbie is a strong person,” he continues, noting she’s a “single mom raising a troubled child, opening a business — anybody can relate to [that.]”
Perhaps 50 Cent would agree. The rapper who once dissed Oprah for shutting his ilk out of her talk show and pandering to whites has since appeared on OWN in a televised sit down on Oprah’s Next Chapter. Oprah has made headlines by interviewing a series of black stars for her cable presence, ranging from Bobbi Kristina Brown to Rihanna, in what appears to be a favorable trend.
The interview with 50 Cent, which exposed the hardcore rapper’s softer side, was vintage Oprah; a prime example of what drew legions of viewers — black, white, female, and male — to her show. If OWN programming can consistently deliver on this ability to erase the lines that separate celebrity from fan, black from white, female from male, Oprah’s network should soon enjoy the millions-strong audience that faithfully watched her show — and exceed it.
As ratings have demonstrated, boosting the quotient of positive black female portrayals on OWN may be the secret ingredient that optimizes this strategy.