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Oprah, Tyler Perry: A Media Marriage of Their OWN

For Oprah Winfrey and her eponymous network, it’s a long way from “Live your best life” to “Throw on Tyler Perry shows and hope something sticks.”

Winfrey might be a big fan of Perry’s work — she certainly sounded that way during an “Oprah’s Master Class” segment devoted to him that was repeated, helpfully, after the two-hour premiere Tuesday of his new primetime soap, “The Haves and the Have Nots.” Still, it’s hard to believe a trashy, cut-rate serial — with production values that make a traditional daytime soap look like “The Avengers” — was what she had in mind when she embarked on her own branded network, OWN.

As the Los Angeles Times noted, neither “The Haves and Have Nots” nor Perry’s latest sitcom, “Tyler Perry’s Love Thy Neighbor,” which premieres May 29, were made available in advance, extending a strategy Perry has employed in not screening his movies for critics.

And after getting a whiff of the “Have Nots” premiere, it’s not hard to figure out why. Shot entirely on interiors within his Atlanta studios, the Perry written, produced and directed program — about a wealthy family and their servants, including the scheming daughter (Tika Sumpter) of a new maid, played by Crystal Fox — was almost claustrophobically cheap, not to mention poorly written and indifferently acted. Every twist was telegraphed, perhaps in part because scenes dragged on interminably. (The network also began running a countdown clock for “Love They Neighbor,” which might be the silliest use of a countdown clock, well, ever.)

Granted, it would be sort of nice if the U.S. could produce its own “Downton Abbey,” and there’s an itch for soaps that various networks (including ABC’s “Mistresses” and Lifetime’s “Devious Maids,” both premiering this month) are eager to scratch. But “Have Nots” might actually be the best positioned for the long haul — not because it’s good, but rather thanks to the combination of OWN’s modest expectations and Perry’s ability to deliver something that vaguely resembles a TV show on a micro-budget. (UPDATE: The premiere attracted 1.8 million viewers, per Nielsen data, modest in the bigger scheme of things, but the highest-rated series debut in the channel’s history. Winfrey’s Lance Armstrong interview, by way of comparison, averaged 3.2 million viewers.)

Getting pilloried by critics is nothing new for Perry, but he has a loyal following and a clear desire to keep expanding his empire. What he has lacked, largely, is much in the way of respect.

In that sense, aligning himself with Winfrey gives him much more than simply a lot of basic-cable real-estate with which to play. The network loaded the premiere with promos featuring both Perry and Winfrey towering above the OWN logo, bestowing the kind of Oprah seal of approval that once launched a thousand (or at least a few dozen) literary bestsellers.

One has to wonder, though, just how many compromises Winfrey will wind up having to make to put OWN on a path to success. Because in the early going, the channel was about more than just ratings, but advancing the former syndicated titan’s larger mission of self-empowerment. Surf OWN today, and while Winfrey has a more expansive presence (her relative absence being a huge mistake when the venture launched), there’s not much to separate what some feared would be “broccoli TV” from the shenanigans on Bravo or WE.

During their interview, Perry dismissed criticism of his work — including, as Winfrey noted, from some African-Americans — as simply “the difficulty of blazing a trail.”

But Winfrey was the one truly determined to blaze a trail — championing a case, by virtue of the rapport she had established with her daytime audience, that the power of her persona could sell and nurture a more elevated brand of television.

Almost exactly two years ago, I wondered whether leaving her syndicated show would “herald a bright future, or her diminution as a cultural and media force? Counting Oprah out would be silly, but given a choice, here’s a qualified bet on the latter.”

Whatever OWN’s future, if its first scripted drama from Perry is in any way indicative of the network’s direction or becomes one of its staples, historians will be able to trace the time that trail flamed out to right around May 28.

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