Oprah wants black audiences to back OWN

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Dear black people,

Oprah wants you back.

Not to say that she completely abandoned the African-American community over the course of her rising career, but we did become less of a priority. It wasn’t personal, it was business – good ratings equals good money, and shows geared towards Middle-American white women fortified her brand.

However now that The Oprah Winfrey Show is kaput, the tables have turned in our favor. There is a crack in Oprah’s titanium empire, and that crack is her struggling TV network. It seems her core audience from her daytime talk show, its various spin-off entities, and the magazine couldn’t find the time to dial in to the OWN network. As much as white middle American loved Oprah the talk show host, interest waned in Oprah the network executive.

Though OWN Network launched to great fanfare back in January, 11 months later the network is damn near D.O.A. We’re talking ratings dropping from an average of 505,000 viewers at its debut, to less than half that number nowadays. There have been numerous executive restructurings of the company (including Oprah stepping up to serve as CEO), and a cacophony of shows featuring A-list celebs and TV talent, and yet nothing. The ratings still sag embarrassingly low, and Oprah’s team is baffled by the absence of success.

And yet a surprising redemption comes in the form of a spunky old lady from St. Louis. Better known as Ms. Robbie, Robbie Montgomery is the star of Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, a reality show about her restaurant and family life in Missouri.

Debuting on the network back in October, Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s has an average audience in the neighborhood of 418,000 viewers. Meaning the show is the highest rated prime-time show on OWN.

And those 418,000 viewers? Mostly African-Americans.

Cue Oprah’s light bulb moment.

“Anytime you have a program that pops like Sweetie Pies did, you start looking at what drove it,” OWN president Erik Logan told Adweek. “And we saw that the African-American audience really had a connection with that show…. We’re going to look at ways to nurture and grow that.”

You read that right – Oprah’s OWN network is now going to start gearing more of it’s programming to black audiences.

Who should be nervous: TV One, Centric
Who should be worried: white people
Who should be skeptical: black people

While Logan was quick to note that the network wasn’t “going to sell out and just chase one demographic,” that the executive is even publicly acknowledging that they’re going after black audiences says that white viewers should be prepared to see more brown than just Oprah’s smiling face on their TVs. Whether they will continue to turn in once this starts happening, it seems the network executives will no longer care – it’s not like white audiences were showing up in droves these past 11 months anyway.

Though it’s nice to know that we’ll be getting more shows out of Ms. Oprah, it’s hard not to harbor some resentment at being her ugly-duckling-turned-swan, reckoning Winfrey’s sudden change of heart with virtually being ignored for years.

But I know that feeling won’t last, once she starts churning out shows. Because let’s face it — that woman makes good TV. Hence why TV One and Centric should be shaking in their boots. Oprah already attracts big time advertisers off her name alone, and if she got the corner on the black market, she could really threaten other black networks’ business.

Despite the good news for black TV viewers, there is a dark cloud hovering above: history doesn’t bode well for black audiences and aspiring major networks. Truth is, a lot of TV networks start out courting black audiences – just ask FOX, The WB, and UPN.

Black people help prime the network, working out general programming kinks and attracting base-level advertisers. Once these TV network novices have raised enough funds and awareness they go after the coveted 18- 49 white demographic and kick us to the curb. While Oprah may be coming at this model a bit backwards, that doesn’t mean she won’t change speeds once the network finds its footing.

That said, I’m prepared to enjoy the ride while it lasts. It’s a good time to be a black TV viewer, what with several networks courting our viewing audience (though frequently with questionable programming choices). No doubt both black audiences and the OWN Network will enjoy a boon in programming and viewership with this new strategic move.