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Going Their OWN Way — With Success

Oprah Winfrey continues to connect with women in a major way with her OWN cable network. Coming off OWN’s most-watched year in its history in 2016, the network currently has three of the top five original scripted series on ad-supported cable among women 25-54 — Tyler Perry’s The Haves and The Have Nots, Winfrey starrer Greenleaf and the Winfrey/Ava DuVernay produced Queen Sugar — and is currently among the top-rated networks among African-American women in the demo.

The network will look to continue its ratings momentum with the launch of a new Perry comedy The Paynes — a spinoff of his hit TBS sitcom House of Payne — as well as with several new unscripted series. OWN president Erik Logan and network senior vice president of advertising sales Kate Mitchell recently spoke to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the network’s programming strategy heading into the upfront as well as its focus on advertisers looking to reach female viewers in general and African-American women in particular. An edited transcript follows.

MCN:Were you surprised by the record ratings s uccess the network experienced in 2016?
Erik Logan: It exceeded all of our expectations from a ratings/revenue reach. When you have two hits like Greenleaf and Queen Sugar on top of the already enormously strong baseline that we had with Tyler Perry and our Saturday-night programming, it was the best you could ask for, candidly. I think it just gave us such a vote of confidence into deepening that relationship with our viewer, deepening in a relationship with our advertisers leaning in further into 2017.

MCN:Did OWN see the same success on the advertising side?
Kate Mitchell: Frankly, I’ve been with the network since we launched, and the numbers we posted in 2016 — we all believed at some point [they] could be possible, but to actually see them come true last year was really remarkable for the team. So last year we saw that first autos and then retail became our two biggest categories that started to really take notice of that woman viewer on our network. It was the success of the Tyler shows and the success of our Saturday-night lineup that had clients coming and buying that audience for us. Now we’re going into a market with Greenleaf and Queen Sugar, as well as the continued success of Saturday night and Tyler.

MCN:Have advertisers responded to OWN’s heavy appeal to African-American female viewers?
KM: If we take last year as an example, the majority of advertisers still look for women 25-54, but now people are seeing OWN as another solution and a welcomed one to reach [African-American women]. There doesn’t have to just be a handful of guys out there that can reach this audience. I always tend to say to Eric and Oprah that the market is strong when your current advertisers continue to increase their investment, but your network is doing well when you get new advertisers … there’s a difference. For us it’s such a good testament to what’s happening with our programming and how it’s resonating in the market.

MCN:So how do you keep the momentum going?
EL: As you know we ordered more Queen Sugar and more Greenleaf episodes. What we’ve done is we’ve invested more in those two shows, which is great. Tyler’s shows are great, and we’re bringing a new comedy, The Paynes, to the air next summer. Pivoting to the unscripted side which has always been the bedrock of the network, Oprah really challenged us about a year ago to really find ways to take the unscripted part of our business and really try to find a way to tell a different type of story, to deepen the storytelling, to elevate the storytelling and meet the audience more where they are.

So when you look at a new show like Released, it’s a great example of how we’re trying to not just do more of the same, and how do we push the innovation from a place of success. So that coupled with what we’re doing with new series Checking Inn, coupled with other things we have in development, [these] are the ways that we’re taking it upon ourselves to challenge the status quo.

MCN:Will we see Oprah get even more involved in developing new shows on screen and behind the camera?
EL: I think it’s hers to design. She fell in love with Greenleaf — obviously she has a role in the show. She felt the greatest value she could add for Queen Sugar was being behind the camera — [series producer Ava DuVernay] obviously had it well under control, but her and Ava have a great alchemy together. We have found that with Oprah, helping our producers and helping us become better storytellers across the board, is really the greatest use of her time and effort. When she’s in a position of curating, looking and thinking and seeing what type of stories are resonating not only with her, but with the community, it’s a great advantage we feel we have. And by the way, at whatever point she wants to get on the screen and act and do whatever she wants, obviously the door is wide open. But you know she’s very busy and she’s got a lot of things happening. She loves what she’s doing here and I think I would say everybody in the organization just loves it when she’s here, and she’s here often.