Oprah’s network breaks through to black female viewers with positive alternatives to reality programming

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Rapper 50 Cent once snarked that Oprah was only relevant to middle-aged white women. But, with the queen of talk now at the helm of her eponymous Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), the mogul’s channel seems to be aggressively courting black female baby boomers — a demo Nielsen has identified as the most lucrative for advertisers out of the nearly 43 million African-American households in America. On October 1, OWN announced an exclusive partnership with Tyler Perry who, with his Madea franchise and ancillary titles, boasts a loyal fan base of black women. Perry’s following has consistently driven box office blowouts for his movie premieres, and top ratings for his television projects. Perry will create two original scripted series for OWN set to debut next year.

OWN’s partnership with Perry follows the successful premiere of its reality series Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, which stars African-American soul food restaurateur Robbie Montgomery. It also comes on the heels of the two-part premiere of Iyanla: Fix My Life, OWN’s best series debut ever, which snagged the number two ratings slot for all cable shows in its time slot and ranked number one in African-American homes. Featuring famed life coach Iyanla Vanzant overseeing the tearful confessions and image makeover of Basketball Wives star Evelyn Lozada, the show’s debut success signaled a breakthrough for the heretofore-flailing OWN — and a significant point of programming differentiation.

While VH1 has long built a following of millions around the Basketball Wives and Love and Hip Hop franchises, the shows’ controversial content has alienated many black women. Under fire for gratuitous violence among castmates and the overall negative depictions of platonic and romantic relationships among blacks, the flack culminated in a May 2012 petition to boycott Basketball Wives. Soon after, Lozada’s surprising allegations of domestic violence against her then-husband Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson led to the cancellation of the duo’s spinoff series Ev and Ocho.

This has created an opportunity for OWN to nab black female viewers by leveraging Oprah’s penchant for prescriptive soul work to attract this audience using star personalities as catalysts for spurring personal improvement.

“Oprah has said from the onset that she wants to create a different network,” OWN President Erik Logan told the Grio, explaining his boss’s maxim that the network’s shows promote “fun, love, and light.” Though Sweetie Pie’s star Montgomery is a former Ikette, and Vanzant is a bestselling author that once had her own talk show, the crux of both programs are the relatable struggles and triumphs that come with facing life’s challenges and overcoming personal demons. Likewise, OWN’s Life Class, Master Class, Super Soul Sunday, and Oprah’s Next Chapter cast the network’s biggest celebrity talent — Oprah herself — in the familiar role of probing truth-seeker and resolution-facilitator.