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At OWN, Writing the Script to Keep Content Flowing

When actor/producer Tyler Perry announced he would no longer produce scripted shows for OWN after signing an exclusive production deal with Viacom’s networks beginning in 2019, many predicted OWN would pull back from the scripted arena. Instead OWN, under the leadership of network owner Oprah Winfrey, is doubling down on scripted programming.

Along with renewing its Winfrey starrer series Greenleaf and its Winfrey/Ava DuVernay co-produced series Queen Sugar for new seasons, OWN has teamed with creative heavyweights such as Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, DuVernay and Will Packer to develop new series targeted to African-American women.

OWN president Erik Logan recently spoke to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the loss of original scripted series from Perry, as well as the network’s plan to create new content. Here’s an edited excerpt of their conversation.

MCN:How big is the loss of the Tyler Perry scripted shows to OWN in terms of the network’s development of original scripted series?
Erik Logan: First of all, it’s still business as usual with Tyler — we have him on the air for many more years. He’s been a big part of what we’re doing and we’re going to continue to be in business with him under his exclusivity through May 2019, and we have the right to work with him beyond that on a nonexclusive basis. So we’re not viewing anything as a loss; we’re looking at it as an opportunity to grow our programming with other shows as we pivot into this new era of scripted programming for OWN.

MCN:How important is the scripted genre for the OWN brand?
EL: Obviously, we launched originals through the unscripted space before adding Tyler’s scripted content in 2013. Then Oprah had some thoughts about how she wanted to develop some new vehicles to tell a different story, and that’s when Greenleaf and Queen Sugar came about. Because of the success of those shows, we now have four of the top six scripted shows [among African-American female audiences] in all of cable today. And what that does is, it gives you a tremendous amount of confidence to keep leaning into that type of storytelling, and that led us to having more discussions with other content producers.

Oprah had always wanted to work with Mara and Salim Akil and that deal came together, which was tremendous. Then we had more conversations which led to this amazing opportunity with Will Packer, and Will talks to a different type of audience because Will has his way of telling stories. Then the success with Ava [DuVernay] that we have had with Queen Sugar — which led to the season three [renewal], and also to Harpo Films having an overall deal with Ava — gives us access to more creative. So the way we look at it is we’re going to invest in scripted shows.

MCN:In this crowded environment of 450-plus scripted shows, how important is it for OWN and other networks to have high-profile producers behind scripted products to help cut through the clutter?
EL: I think you know having big hit shows requires a lot of things. It requires an exceptional showrunner; it requires a tremendous writer’s room; it requires a flawless execution — all of the things that we know. When we start the creative process with Oprah, she says to people like Ava, like Mara and Will Packer that this is a place for creatives to really have the freedom to tell the stories that they want to tell. Because Oprah’s part of the alchemy that makes the stories work, we’re able to clearly shine a light on who our audience is, and focusing very specifically on our audience is how we cut through the clutter. We cut through by knowing who we’re talking to and how we’re talking to them.

That’s the reason why we are bullish about this new era that we’re moving into. Because of Oprah, Ava and the work that Tyler has done laying that foundation for us for all those years, scripted will continue to be a part of what we do; Mara has the opportunity to build from there and so does Will. So you know, it really is a very interesting mix of creative people that we have brought together and it all sort of feeds on one another.

MCN:Will Oprah become more involved in the development of these shows, either in front of or behind the camera?
EL: Oprah will weigh in on where she wants to be and how she wants to be. That’s what has been so exciting with this process — you know she can move in and out of any show that she wishes. She works directly with Ava on Queen Sugar and directly with Craig Wright on Greenleaf. So you know Oprah really gets involved with these creative people to establish the expectations of what our viewers want to see. A key part of this is making sure we have stories, imagery, narratives so that our target 25-54 African-American female can see themselves on our air in a way they haven’t before. So getting that right is why we continue to move into this new era of premium scripted cable.

R. Thomas Umstead
R. Thomas Umstead

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.