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Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Evolves Amid TV-Industry Shifts

Tarrell Alvin McCraney threw up a little in his mouth when Oprah Winfrey sat down in the room to hear his pitch for “David Makes Man.”

“I was a lot nervous,” McCraney says.

Winfrey had put a meeting of Oprah Winfrey Network’s board of directors on hold at the request of Michael B. Jordan, who executive produces the series, to hear McCraney deliver a lyrical pitch about a young boy struggling to find his place in the world.

David Makes Man,” premiering Aug. 14, is the latest high-concept swing to come out of OWN, which, after several years of turbulence, has carved itself a position as a leading destination for black female viewers. However, with the threat of cord-cutting and powerful new players entering the content arena, the network will need to adapt to keep up with the evolution of the TV business.

When the iconic host launched the network back in 2011, her vision was to take the formula of her self-help show “Super Soul Sunday” and apply it across the entire network. By Winfrey’s own admission, she quickly found out this “was not the audience I was speaking to.”

“When I was doing the ‘Oprah’ show all those years, I was basically doing shows for myself and my producers; whatever was going on in our lives, we would sit around and talk about what we thought was important,” Winfrey tells Variety. “What I realized is when you’re doing a whole network, you need to speak to whoever is willing to listen.”

The audience that was willing to listen, and upon which OWN has built itself since, was one that had been addressed far too little on broadcast television: one that is predominantly black and female.

“Fortunately for me, the African American audience followed me from the ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ so I learned to speak to who was listening, which has been one of my greatest lessons as a programmer for television,” she says.

Finding an audience was one problem, luring creators to a network whose future looked uncertain was another, according to Carla Gardini, executive vice president of Winfrey’s Harpo Films shingle who was brought in to spearhead OWN’s programming push.

“In those early days we really had to sit with writers and hear from them what their intention is and let them know that it was going to be a place where they were going to have a lot of artistic freedom, that we cared as much about protecting their vision and their intention as we did hoping that it would translate into a ratings bonanza or worrying about what critics would say about it,” explains Gardini.

After a few years of stability for OWN, during which time it wielded the powerhouse creative trio of Winfrey, Ava DuVernay and Tyler Perry to challenge BET as the preeminent destination for curated, auteur-driven content targeted at African Americans, its viewership is, like many linear networks in the Peak TV era, on the decline.

In 2018, OWN’s average viewership declined 14% year to year, to 465,000 from 539,000 total viewers in Nielsen Live+7 numbers. However, to date in 2019 the network does boast the top four original scripted series on cable for African-American women in the 25-54 demo and four of the top 12 series among women aged 25-54 in general.

According to media consultant Brad Adgate, OWN may be “well situated right now” in the media landscape with its audience representing the “most regular viewers of television,” but in the long run the network will have to have “a foot in both worlds” and migrate to the streaming space if it wants to avoid a loss in subscribers, ratings and, eventually, revenue.

Tina Perry took over as president of the network, a joint venture between Discovery Communications and Winfrey’s Harpo Studios, not much more than six months ago. She brushes off the threat of rivals stealing OWN’s slice of the pie.

“We’re in discussions and thinking about what could OWN’s role be over the top, what does a digital play for OWN outside of our app look like?” Perry says. “We’re fortunate to be part of the Discovery family, which is being aggressive in that space with the launch of a couple new products.”

Perry and the network are hoping that in “David Makes Man,” they have found a show that will attract a more general audience, and bring in some male viewers. With the McCraney show and the upcoming DuVernay anthology series “Cherish the Day,” OWN is putting more shows on the air than it ever has.

“The series feels like a reflection of my relationship with OWN,” DuVernay says of her other OWN series, “Queen Sugar.” “It’s very much about family, it’s very intimate in what it’s processing and looking at. I think that’s what OWN does best.”

With “Queen Sugar” airing its fourth season, DuVernay sees herself as “embedded” at the network, which she says doesn’t treat its black female audience as “a monolith,” but rather programs towards the “great variance within the umbrella of black womanhood.”

As McCraney testifies, working with Winfrey and the OWN brand is still appealing for creators who have a specific audience and purpose in mind for their work in mind.

“Oprah’s been in homes and dealt with these deep conversations with America for over 20 years, and to be on the platform that she created, to be able to go into the intimate domiciles of folks and have conversations that affect black lives and lives in general was very important to me,” McCraney says.

In June, 2018 Winfrey signed a deal with Apple to create programs for the tech company’s forthcoming streaming platform, signaling her intent to jump into the digital game. On whether the partnership will interfere with her work at OWN or possibly even dilute the Oprah brand, Winfrey says she sees her Apple collaboration as “a different lane,” one which she will use to cover “broader issues” such as mental health and literacy, in a similar fashion to her “Oprah Show” days.

When asked of her vision for the future of the network, Winfrey simply replies with one word: “More.”

“I see telling more stories like these,” she says. “We’re currently working on a new series with Ava, working on another one with Will Packer after ‘Ambitions,’ so for me it’s getting as many stories that are reflective of the broad diversity within the African American culture and community and letting people see themselves.”

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