Networks' spring presentations to advertisers are scripted affairs. At TNT and TBS' announcements last week, known as "upfronts," stars major and minor walked onstage in a hall filled with advertising executives to deliver carefully worded talks about their shows. Almost all read from prompters.
Until Tyler Perry took the stage.
The playwright, filmmaker and actor spoke with no notes about his two series on TBS: House of Payne and Meet the Browns. (Both return to TBS Wednesday, May 27 at 9 pm and 10 pm, respectively.) Perry didn't need a script because he was explaining the story of his life. When he started putting on his plays in the 1990s — a decade he partially spent sleeping in his car in Atlanta — he played to audiences of about 30 people.
"What I would do after a performance is just what I'm doing now: I would go out and talk to the audience and I would ask them to sign up for the mailing list and I would ask, 'Who's the oldest person here? Who's the youngest person here?' I don't do a whole lot of, you know, the research things. My research came from our stage," he told the advertisers, whose profession relies almost entirely on knowing their markets.
"Largely," Perry continued, "African-American women were in the audience and what I found, as most men in this room know, is if you are married, the women bring the men and the children and everybody to everything. So I know and I knew then that I needed to focus on them."
It worked. When Perry came off the road in 2006 to focus on movies, television, and opening his own production studio, his plays were playing to audiences of up to 30,000 a week. Three of the six films he has written and directed since that year have debuted at the top of the box office. And TBS repeatedly told advertisers that Meet the Browns and House of Payne are the two top shows so far this year among African-American audiences aged 18-49. (The movies and shows are distributed by Lionsgate, which owns TVGuide.com.)
"Audiences are starving for a show like House of Payne, and Meet the Browns," Perry told TVGuide.com. "To have someone paying attention to them, giving them what they want... images that look like themselves."
The series, like all Perry productions, are branded with his name before the title. Perry is happy for now to own Wednesday nights on TBS, but may soon lend his name to something else. He's long wanted his own network, and says an announcement could come soon.
"It's a standalone type of night, and as I grow it from House of Payne to Meet the Browns and spread out with more and more shows, who knows?" he said. "I'm working on anchoring my own network, but this is a great place to sharpen the anchor."