Maybe Tyler Perry's next movie should be called Madea Saves Oprah's Network.
Just a year ago, OWN's financial losses and struggle for ratings began to concern the Wall Street analysts who follow the venture that Oprah Winfrey co-owns with Discovery Communications. So writer-director-producer Perry, a longtime Winfrey pal, offered his services to create comedies and dramas for the network, which had been built on reality series and talk shows.
Twelve months later, his scripted series have delivered a badly needed boost to OWN. On May 28, the drama The Haves and the Have Nots opened with 1.77 million viewers — the largest for an OWN series premiere — and retained most of that audience in its second week. The May 29 premiere of Perry's broad sitcom Love Thy Neighbor, set in a family-owned diner run by a cranky matriarch, pulled in 1.65 million viewers.
With Perry's early success, pitches for scripted programs from other producers have begun coming in to OWN's offices. "The phones started ringing quick," says network president Erik Logan. "There is a lot of interest."
Not everyone is thrilled that Winfrey has turned to Perry for a lifeline. While his work is wildly popular in the African-American community, some critics and activists believe his oeuvre often perpetuates negative stereotypes. In a blog post titled "Tyler Perry Hates Black Women," Rutgers University assistant professor Brittney Cooper notes that the only ambitious female African-American character on The Haves and the Have Nots — which centers on a wealthy Southern family and the domestic workers in its mansion — is the conniving law student/prostitute played by Tika Sumpter. "It's unfortunate to see," says Cooper. "I have always thought Oprah to be more values-driven in terms of the choices she makes."
An activist on the website Change.org is circulating a petition asking OWN to dump Perry's programming because it runs counter to Winfrey's mission to use television to educate, empower and uplift people. Some TV critics were also chagrined. The Los Angeles Times's Mary McNamara wrote, "Perry just might deliver the numbers OWN needs to survive. But he also might take down the whole Oprah brand to do it."
Logan contends that the Oprah brand is "a really wide lane," with room for both Perry's shows and Winfrey's more high-minded signature programs, including Oprah's Master Class, Oprah's Lifeclass and Super Soul Sunday. "All we're doing is telling stories," he says. "The evolution of telling stories on this network is moving to scripted programs."
Not all 4,500 episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show were about self-improvement or enlightenment, Logan points out. "There are hundreds of Oprah shows where people would sit back and do nothing but laugh," he says. "I can think of several episodes when it was just Oprah yukking it up with Chris Rock for an hour. That's why the brand is so powerful. It's pliable. It moves. It's embracive."
Logan says Winfrey and Perry were determined to assemble a diverse cast for The Haves and the Have Nots so it would appeal to Perry's African-American base and pull in new fans. "It is doing what we hoped it would do," Logan says. As for the Perry detractors? "We honor and respect all of the voices," he says, adding that the ratings speak, too. "There are millions of people who believe Perry certainly fits within the brand."
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