Oprah Makes Shows for Black Women and Finally Finds Success With OWN

After loads of negative press that must have driven her crazy, Oprah's OWN network is finally hitting its stride, and it's all because she's not making shows for white audiences anymore. That's the conclusion Allison Samuels comes to in her piece for the Daily Beast Thursday about how Oprah has figured out What Women Want – or at least, what black women want.

Oprah's previous television success, The Oprah Winfrey Show, was successful based off of her appeal to a slightly different audience: white middle-class women who were home during the day. When her famous talk show was on, the audience was 77 percent female and half of the viewers were over the age of 55. Those viewers were also mostly white; 5.9 million of whites watched every day, a sharp comparison to a viewership of 1.4 million blacks, and less than a quarter of a million Hispanics.

Samuels credits Oprah's success to her expanded reality television programming featuring black women, which includes Iyanla: Fix My Life, Life with La Toya, Beverly's Full House, Raising Whitley and Welcome to Sweetie Pie's. She writes:

"In an era when positive images of women of color still lag considerably behind women of other races, and when reality shows do little more than highlight decades-old stereotypes of African-American women, Winfrey’s revamped version of OWN is now a much needed leveling field in the land of television. It’s a one-stop shop for stories most mainstream networks, cable or otherwise, wouldn’t think about airing."

But such praise stands in sharp contrast to the criticism Oprah has received for soapy shows like The Haves and Have Nots, a Tyler Perry production that centers on the relationship between the white Cryer family in Savannah, Georgia and their black servants and friends. On that show, a young black female escort is painted as adulterous villain for sleeping with the white patriarch of the house, just the latest in Perry's attempts to punish black women who are too sexual and aren't god-fearing enough. Samuels essentially avoids mention of Oprah's relationship with Perry, who has become a driving force behind a large share of her programming choices. Some even argue that teaming up with Perry – who is amazingly successful, whatever you think of his work – was an economic choice for Oprah, one that's been made by networks before. So argued Brittney Cooper at Crunk Feminist Collective:

"Really, OWN is struggling. And when networks struggle, they pimp the 'urban demographic' for ratings and money. And once they are set financially, they bounce. The Fox Network did it: Living Single, Martin, In Living Color. The WB, UPN, and the CW all did it. So I see what O is doing, and I resent it."

The season premiere for The Haves and The Have Nots was OWN's biggest ever, with 1.77 million viewers, higher than their previous big premiere Life With La Toya, which got only 1.18 million (how could La Toya have gotten bested?!).

Perhaps Samuels doesn't count the Tyler Perry infusion, and instead only counts the reality television programming choices as the ones with the Oprah stamp of approval on them. The media magnate may have indeed managed to tap into a desire that black women have – just like women and men of all races have – to see real-life aspirational programming with people who look like them. Perhaps that's why shows that Samuels' highlights about Shania Twain, Sarah Ferguson and the Judd family didn't pay off. There's an overly crowded market for reality television programming about redemption for middle class white people. Oprah already has the traditional aspirational content market covered with her hour-long interviews where she basically talks to her famous friends about their lives, some of whom are people like LL Cool J, but a lot of whom are Chelsea Handler or Steven Spielberg.

Perhaps that's why Oprah announced last week that she's airing two comedy specials hosted by Wanda Sykes, which feature a line-up of only women comedians, most of them black. There's plenty written about the lack of diversity in comedy, which sits at odds with the audience hunger for it. So what may seem an odd fit for the old Oprah makes sense now, given that she's moving, whether financially or altruistically motivated, in a more diverse direction.

"We may never know for sure if this is the network Winfrey first envisioned when OWN launched in 2011," Samuels concludes. "But it’s hard to imagine she isn’t just a little pleased with the major change OWN is now bringing to the television landscape or with the grateful viewers who finally have a network they can watch without grimacing." Speculating about what Oprah is actually thinking is a dangerous game, but it is nice to see some programming that's different than the delights of a network she was formerly involved with, Oxygen, which will start airing its 11th season of The Bad Girls Club this summer.

Why Oprah Winfrey’s New Shows Are Working for OWN [The Daily Beast]

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