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Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Leverages Success in Drama With High-Profile Package Deals

Scripted dramas are so plentiful in cable these days that some well-established networks are beating a retreat from the form. OWN, on the other hand, is charging harder into that programming arena, which has led Oprah Winfrey’s network out of the ratings wilderness.

In the past month OWN has inked high-profile deals for scripted content from red-hot producers Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, Ava DuVernay and Will Packer. OWN’s investment in scripted series is growing rapidly as the cabler demonstrates its ability to draw a crowd with what OWN president Erik Logan calls “elevated scripted programming” for African-American women.

The success OWN has enjoyed with original dramas “Greenleaf” and “Queen Sugar” has proved that even with 450-plus scripted series airing in primetime this year across all of TV, there’s a big opportunity for shows that speak to a multicultural female audience.

“The big breakthrough for us has been knowing who we’re talking to and continuously talking to them,” Logan says. “We’re very clear that we’re a powerful and empowering place for them to be. Oprah has challenged us to find different ways to talk to our audience.”

The response of OWN’s drama slate underscores that the cabler’s demo of African-American women in the 18-54 age range is “a more sophisticated, enlightened viewer that has been neglected by network and cable television,” Logan says.

OWN’s turnaround after the network’s rocky debt in 2011 began in 2013 and ’14 with the success of Tyler Perry’s sexy sudsers “The Haves and Have Nots” and “If Loving You Is Wrong.”

Perry earlier this month struck a mammoth TV and film deal with Viacom that will steer his TV shows to OWN rival BET starting in 2019. Logan emphasized that OWN still has two years to go on its exclusive pact with Perry, and that OWN may still have the chance to work with him on a nonexclusive basis.

“Greenleaf,”  “Queen Sugar” and Perry’s pair of dramas rank high in the top 10 among all basic cable dramas. That momentum has given OWN new traction in recruiting creative partners rather than merely fielding pitches. And the cabler’s ratings growth has given it a stronger financial foundation to build on.

“What Oprah wants to do is twofold: She wants OWN to have deep relationships with multiple creatives. She wants us to give them a palette and the white space to tell stories that are meaningful to them,” Logan says.

“To be able to sit down with some of the greatest creatives in our industry and say, ‘Help us execute stories that are meaningful to you and our audience,’ is a very different thing than being in a room when you know you’re the seventh stop for a hot pitch going around town.”

The scripted push at OWN is fulfilling Winfrey’s vision for the network that bears her name. But the same guiding principles apply for OWN’s unscripted series. A high-priority project for OWN in that arena is “Released,” which bows Sept. 30. The show examines the crisis of mass incarceration by following convicts and their families in the weeks before and after they are released from prison.

The mandate for producers who work with OWN is very clear, says Logan: “How do we put imagery and stories on the screen so that African-American women can see themselves in a way that they haven’t been seen before?”

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