Starting Over

Why Oprah Winfrey’s New Shows Are Working for OWN

The new shows on OWN highlight the lives of black women, writes Allison Samuels. Viewers are happy.

Just this week OWN, the cable network founded by talk show icon Oprah Winfrey, announced the renewal of three of its top reality shows: Iyanla: Fix My Life, starring Iyanla Vanzant; Life with La Toya, starring La Toya Jackson; and Raising Whitley, starring Kim Whitley, which all feature black women at the center. Erik Logan, president of OWN, credited each show with increasing the network’s ratings overall and propelling the once-struggling cable station to the No. 1 viewing choice for African-American women on Saturday nights.

But oh, what a difference two years can make. When OWN debuted in 2011 a amid much fanfare, the weekly lineup had little in common with its current offerings. Names like Shania Twain, Sarah Ferguson, The Judds, and Rosie O’Donnell were the famous faces being touted as Winfrey and team tried to recapture the mainstream and very diverse audience she’d enjoyed for nearly 20 years on her hugely successful The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Winfrey’s decisions on programming were questioned by some, including me, who wondered why a network owned by an African-American woman would feature so few. To be fair, Winfrey’s BBF Gayle King was given an early-morning show, but that barely counts and didn’t last very long. Was it Winfrey’s plan to get OWN on firm ground with a locked-in mainstream audience before introducing shows with a more diverse cast? Or was this really Winfrey’s “world-view,” as one of her former network’s heads suggested when I posed the lack of diversity question?

Whatever her reasoning, the choice of initial shows for OWN did poorly among cable watchers, resulting in pretty dismal ratings and a game of musical chairs in top management. Winfrey’s critics had a field day with what appeared to be a rare misstep by the otherwise shrewd businesswoman.

Friends close to Ms. Winfrey say she isn’t particularly fond of criticism, but also add that she’s even less fond of failure. So the talk-show titan returned to the drawing board to fix her beloved OWN and the end result may just prove that the failure of the network’s first season was ultimately a blessing in disguise.

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.

To kick off her second season, Winfrey chose to air Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, a reality show featuring a black woman who was once a background singer for Ike and Tina Turner. The personable lead character now runs a soul food restaurant with her son in St. Louis. Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s has its share of mild family drama and mayhem for those who can’t live without it, but the overwhelming theme is a view of a loving mother and smart businesswoman working to make a better life for her family. Next, America’s first black supermodel Beverly Johnson was tapped by Winfrey to have her own show, Beverly’s Full House, that revealed how her life evolved from international fashion icon to mother, grandmother, and booming entrepreneur with her own hair care line.

Sweetie Pie’s instantly became the network’s biggest hit to date, no doubt convincing Winfrey of the real hunger that existed for shows featuring women of color in more authentic and compelling roles. OWN was now broadcasting the kind of shows rarely found on her fellow cable network competitors VH1 or Bravo.

Winfrey wasted no time moving full-speed in the direction of her fans' wishes. She mended fences with her friend and popular author Iyanla Vanzant and launched the network’s next big hit, Iyanla: Fix My Life. The show follows the self-help guru as she tries to give emotional support to clients of all races, and was a big hit last season with the network’s largest numbers in its time slot.

This season Winfrey expanded even further with shows starring La Toya Jackson and her unique life as being a member of music’s most famous family. But by far the most impressive show added to the OWN line-up by Winfrey is Raising Whitley, a show that features Kim Whitley, a relatively well-known actress and comic, as a new mother to a child left to her by a teenager girl she once mentored. The show follows Whitley and her friends as they try to raise the child she never thought she'd have. The show is a fascinating and heart-warming ride with lovable group of characters led by Whitley. Samuel L. Jackson has even tweeted his love for show, proving African-American men have also found their way to the network’s audience pool.

Kim Whitley, as talented as she may be, would likely never have a shot at sharing such a compelling story on television if OWN didn’t exist. We may never know for sure if this is the network Winfrey first envisioned when OWN launched in 2011. 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. They say if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Thank goodness Ms. Winfrey took that to heart.