OWN president Tina Perry has Oprah Winfrey’s cable network aggressively rolling out high-profile, original content since she took the reins seven months ago. The network, targeted to African-American women and co-owned by Discovery Inc. and Winfrey’s Harpo, last month launched arguably its most ambitious series of the year in David Makes Man, produced by Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight).
In June, OWN bowed the drama series Ambitions, from prolific TV writer Will Packer and starring Robin Givens. Those two shows, along with the Ava DuVernay-produced Queen Sugar, carried OWN to the top spot in viewership among African-American women 18 and older in August, according to Nielsen.
On deck for the network is DuVernay’s anthology series Cherish the Day, set to debut in 2020.
Multichannel News spoke with Perry about OWN’s upcoming slate of originals, as well as whether the network currently reflects Winfrey’s original vision for the network. Here’s an edited transcript of that interview.
MCN: Does the network now reflect the image and the message that Oprah Winfrey wants to convey to the marketplace?
Tina Perry: Absolutely. It’s very important to her heart that our viewers see authentic representations of their lives in everything that they do. It is part of her mantra and it’s something that she takes into consideration, as she is curating and thinking creatively about what she wants to share with the audience.
MCN: OWN has created a number of successful, long-running scripted series such as Greenleaf and Queen Sugar. What has been the secret to success in that genre?
TP: We’re a little unusual compared to other networks that have a strategic or thematic approach. For us, we’re looking for the storyteller that has a special voice and a unique story that they want to tell that has intention and passion behind it. It’s one of the reasons we can make a show about a black church and then go to a family on a sugar cane farm, followed by the life of a 13-yearold- boy in David Makes Man. There’s really not a thematic connection between the stories, but rather it’s about the auteur and working with creators and writers who are just compelled in a passionately unique way in their storytelling. That’s more the criteria versus thematic or any type of specific strategy.
MCN: With six months now under your belt, how would you define OWN’s brand?
TP: At OWN, our mission is to provide our audience the best reflection of themselves through the best programming that we can produce with regards to premium, scripted and unscripted programming. We’re exploring African-American relationship themes that reflect the lives of our audience.
MCN: A number of networks are also targeting African-American female viewer. Why is that demographic so coveted by networks, and what gives OWN a leg up on the competition?
TP: Advertisers now know her buying power and everybody is aware that she consumes content on all platforms, including traditional cable TV. For us, we were there first. We were among the very first places to acknowledge her and to present programming that she responded to. The African-American viewer has been an overlooked viewer for so long, and I think the success that we’ve had — the ratings growth, the advertisers that we work with — has caught people’s attention. You see a lot of people chasing her now, and they’re finding out that she has high standards and special tastes — you can’t tell any story to her — and she’s very sensitive to seeing authentic reflections of African-American life and experiences. I think we’re in such a great place, and it’s exciting to see that everyone is chasing her. It’s flattering that people have watched what we’re doing and have decided to do it as well.
MCN: What should viewers expect to see from OWN in the near future?
TP: We [recently] launched David Makes Man from Oscar-winning writer Tarell Alvin McCraney. We also recently launched Ambitions with Will Packer and will bring the series back in the fourth quarter. At the top of first quarter (of 2020), we’ll have Cherish the Day, our second series with Ava DuVernay, and it’s an anthology series that follows a couple in love, and each episode is one day in the couple’s life. This fall, we’re bringing back two unscripted series that did incredibly well for us last year: Love & Marriage: Huntsville and Ready to Love from Will Packer. We have another unscripted series that we’ll be launching called Black Women OWN the Conversation, featuring 100 black women in a room talking about topical issues.
MCN: What are the biggest challenges you face as a network executive in this very crowded and noisy environment?
TP: One challenge we have is the number of options in the non-TV space. The streamers have now become competitors as they serve up programming targeting our viewer. We’re fortunate to have Oprah and our scripted and unscripted teams serving up programming that is really hitting home for our viewers. Also, bringing younger viewers to the network is a focus. We’re targeting women 25 to 54, but there are more African-American women in their 20s and 30s watching TV, and I want to do everything I can to bring them to the network.
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.
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