Oprah Winfrey's new deal with Tyler Perry shows she may have learned tough lessons about cable TV
On paper, this deal makes so much sense you're surprised the TV industry came up with it in the first place.
Media queen Oprah Winfrey's OWN cable channel announced Monday that its first two scripted series would come in 2013 from Tyler Perry -- a longtime friend of Winfrey's and one of the few performers who has developed a fan base of middle-aged women as rabidly devoted as hers.
And though I haven't talked to anyone at OWN or Perry's company about this, I also have a feeling this deal show Winfrey has learned some tough lessons about wrenching her brand over to cable TV.
1) When all other audiences fail, addressing underserved black viewers always works for new channels. When highly-hyped series featuring mainstream stars such as Shania Twain, Rosie O'Donnell and The Judds fizzled, Winfrey found some of her staunchest support in an area where many emerging networks get their start: black viewers. These days, some of Winfrey's most buzzed-about new shows are centered on black stars, including Iyanla Vanzant's new show Fix My Life, which debuted with a buzzed-about interview featuring Basketball Wives star Evelyn Lozada talking about her failed marriage to football star Chad Ochocinco. Welcome to Sweetie Pie's, a series about a black-owned restaurant chain, and Super Soul Sundays have also performed well.
Every new programmer from the Fox network to UPN and the WB targeted black viewers first because they are historically underserved by TV shows and proportionally watch more television. Winfrey is following a tine-honored custom by serving the audience which has always been in her corner.
2) It takes time to build a cable brand; even for Oprah Winfrey. Every media expert -- including me -- predicted that building cable channels take time. But the huge amount of hype preceding Winfrey's move from syndicated TV to cable made a slow, gradual transition impossible. So Winfrey debuted the channel; while she was distracted with ending her landmark daytime talk show, filling it with a bunch of shows her fans weren't particularly interested in. Now, with the star installed as CEO and focused on the channel, it's developing hits based on what viewers watching the channel want to see.
3) No one will watch an Oprah Winfrey-branded network if Oprah isn't on it. Ratings also began to rebound on OWN when Winfrey debuted her new, original show Oprah's Next Chapter -- mostly because she nabbed interviews with people at the center of big stories, from the children of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson to Rihanna, Usher and Lady Gaga. This was Oprah doing what her fans love; getting celebrities to say something intimate and revealing, while making the kind of headlines that draw viewers who aren't already watching.
4) Partnering with experienced TV producers who have ready fan bases makes sense. According to the Los Angeles Times, Perry shelved plans to create his own cable channel for Winfrey's deal. It's a smart move; both he and Winfrey have huge fan bases among black people and middle aged women and by pooling efforts, they can create more destination programming for OWN which would get better viewership than Perry likely could secure alone.
The only question left is how long Winfrey can keep building out a cable channel targeting black viewers without openly admitting it.