Just over a year ago, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network was weathering some bad press for laying off 30 employees in a restructuring that was the latest in a revolving door of executive departures after the network's 2011 launch. So when prolific writer/producer Tyler Perry asked if he could help, the response was a resounding "yes."
This week, two new Perry series will premiere on OWN in the network's first foray into scripted programming- The Haves and the Have Nots, Perry's first drama series, on May 28, and back-to-back episodes of comedy Love Thy Neighbor on May 29. Having established Saturday nights with unscripted entries Iyanla: Fix My Life, Raising Whitley and Life With La Toya, as well as Oprahthemed Sundays with Oprah's Next Chapter, Lifeclass and Master Class, the goal is to do the same for Tuesdays and Wednesdays with the Perry series. OWN also has new episodes of Perry's comedy For Better or Worse (plus its 44-episode library) debuting late this year.
Ahead of this week's premieres, OWN president Erik Logan spoke with B&C programming editor Andrea Morabito about the network's scripted strategy, how Perry is affecting the bottom line and chasing "big get" interviews. An edited transcript follows.
Why get into scripted? Was it the opportunity to partner with Tyler Perry, or was scripted a goal?
Oprah is a big fan of scripted. We always felt that scripted was a way for Oprah to continue to tell stories in a different way. It happened very organically, truthfully. Oprah and Tyler have been friends for many, many years. At the point it started, the network statistically wasn't doing well. The press was very, very hard on the network at the time because we had taken some very aggressive moves in terms of right-sizing the business. Tyler basically called up and lending an open hand, said â€˜Can I help?' We said, â€˜Sure, why don't you write a show for us....' As it evolved, it became very obvious if we were going to go into scripted, this was the right way to enter it.
How many episodes have you ordered of each series?
We've got 16 dramas and we've done 26 half-hours.
If the shows do well, when will you make a renewal decision? How quickly could you get a second season on?
This is our first step into scripted in a really meaningful way. We run movies on the air, but from an original prime strategy, we're not sure how the audience is going to respond and react to it. We are confident it's going to be successful. We don't know what that means in terms of where we are as a network. So we're going to take each week as a week, as a learning experience, understand what the audience flow is, understand how we're growing. There's going to come a point where it's very obvious to all of us what the next right step would be, and we're not going to rush that. And the good news is we don't need to rush that. We can let this play out a little more organically because of the partnership we have with Tyler.
For Better or Worse will premiere late this year. Are you in development on more scripted with Tyler or other creators?
From an OWN perspective, these are the only projects that we're focusing on right now. We really need to see what happens when we get these on the air and evaluate that, because the network's going to have a completely different look, feel, flow-everything about it is going to be different.
Are you getting a premium on advertising pricing in these series because of Perry's known brand?
Clearly the announcement has increased the demand for the network, and I think we're seeing that in the scatter market. We currently are a premium CPM network; we have been since launch. Our launch partners bought into the vision that Oprah was building over the long-term. When we do show up with Tyler Perry, they see it's part of the validation of the dream that they have signed up for, because our launch partners have not gone down since launch, they've gone up. We are getting pricing demand in the scatter market, and the timing's great for us right now as we're in the middle of the upfront. We obviously thought about that and that's why the shows are where they are, so that advertisers can participate in these shows and the network can try to gain some value and yield out of that.
Oprah has had some big bookings in the last year-Whitney Houston's family, Lance Armstrong- which earned the network's highest ratings ever. How much of a push are you putting behind nabbing those big gets going forward?
A lot of those big, big bookings, they really at times call you. It's still that thing when someone has something to say, they want to talk to Oprah. We're in the game on all of them. Those bookings are something that we're constantly looking at. It really gets down to this: You've got to put people into Next Chapter that really have a story.... Cleary Lance, those moments, that's great. Rihanna, David Letterman, that's great. It does revolve around a lot of different things-the travel, [Winfrey's] schedule, their schedule. All those things are factors that play into it.
It is still hard to find network TV series with African-American leads. Do you feel like you have an underserved space to tap into with these Perry series?
We do know that the Oprah brand is a very, very wide lane. What was very clear was our single biggest piece of success we had at that time was the fact that our Saturday nights were gaining some traction with a show called Welcome to Sweetie Pie's. If you look at the shows separately, clearly Love Thy Neighbor is what I would consider Tyler Perry wheelhouse comedy. When you look at Haves and Have Nots-one, it's his first drama that he's written in terms of a series. No. 2, this is a very, very diverse cast. That is indicative of where Tyler is and growing, and it's exciting for us. We clearly have embraced the adoption that happened early in our growth with the African-American presence, which you clearly see on Saturdays, Tyler's going to help bolster that. At the same time, when you look at the drama, you do see us making sure that that wide-lane approach that we have in terms of the big picture for our network is continuing to be built.
E-mail comments to email@example.com and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito
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