Oprah Winfreyis putting the “O” in OWN’s scripted series lineup. After successfully teaming with Tyler Perry to jump into the scripted arena which such originals as The Haves and the Have Nots and If Loving You Is Wrong, the network in June premiered its megachurch-themed drama Greenleaf, in which Winfrey herself starred in a recurring role as blues club owner Mavis McCready. The series was an instant hit for the network, averaging 3 million viewers for its June 21 debut, a record for an OWN series premiere. In OWN’s second non-Perry scripted drama series, the upcoming family drama Queen Sugar, Winfrey serves as executive producer with Selma producer Ava DuVernay. The Wire spoke with OWN president Erik Logan about the network’s scripted series push and how much the Oprah factor and her decision to become more hands-on with the shows have helped influence the network’s scripted fortunes.
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The Wire: How have OWN and Oprah looked to develop the network’s original scripted series?
Erik Logan: We’re doing what we feel we’ve always tried to do, which is to find stories that connect with people that need to be told. If you look at Greenleaf narrowly, what excited us all about this project was that it was a family drama, but what was going to make this one different was that we were going to feature African-Americans in a way where they can see themselves in real issues that are facing the community. You put that on the backdrop of an African-American megachurch, and layer in what everybody knows that has either been printed or rumored to have happened in churches of that size and stature, and it really gives a wonderful arena to tell stories.
I think the success is that there’s such a push/pull in this story of truth is greater than fiction and fiction is greater than truth. Every episode, we feel, goes to the audience and invites them to think about themselves, their communities and who they are as well. That has always been the core of OWN. If you go back to 2011 when we put [Oprah’s] Lifeclass on the air for the very first time, when Oprah was just sitting in a chair … the intention of that show was to have people start thinking and inducing interest into how to better your life. Scripted is just a new way of doing that for Oprah. I think you’ll see that with Queen Sugar as well. We tackle some very, very real critical, cultural issues in a very similar way that we did with Greenleaf.
TW: Will we see more of Oprah on screen as the network develops more original scripted content?
EL: Certainly, if you’re running the network, the answer is absolutely. To be real about it, if she sees characters in these stories that really spoke to her — like Mavis spoke to her in Greenleaf — the answer is going to be yes. She loves acting and she’s certainly doing a lot of it now. She enjoyed her Greenleaf experience, but I will also say she enjoyed her Queen Sugar experience just as much — serving as executive producer with Ava — behind the camera as much as in front of the camera. I’m often asked how involved she is, and I say we’ve been having a series of meeting around a lot of things. People still get taken aback that some of the decisions on these shows — whether it’s casting or choosing clothing articles or colors or palettes — that Oprah is in these conversations.
One of the things that I think is so great — and I’ve stolen this as a line from her — is that she taught me that love is in the details. The reason why Greenleaf is as successful and is on brand and is connecting — and why Queen Sugar will be the same — is because that is who Oprah is. She is leaning into those details. We have other projects out there that she may or may not be in. Certainly we have a season two of Greenleaf coming so we’ll see what happens with the storyline of Mavis. It’s real fun to dream that up right now.
[Queen Sugar debuts on Tuesday, Sept. 6, on OWN.]
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.