Oprah Winfrey Bets on Black and Wins

She may not say it outright, but Oprah saved OWN by playing to her own.

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Oprah Winfrey brought OWN back. (Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

In a revealing Q&A with New York magazine's Vulture.com, Oprah Winfrey discusses how she took her television network, OWN, from life support to profitable. There were numerous factors, chief among them bringing in trusted charges Sheri Salata and Erik Logan to help right the ship, and giving her partners at Discovery Communications more of a say.

But the changes to the network's programming have also been instrumental, and though she never explicitly talks about the predominantly black lineups throughout the network's shows, pay attention to the shows she says were important in the network's recovery. 

I have a tendency to look at everything from the point of view of: What is going to be meaningful, and uplift people? That can become too stoic and too serious -- which is the same issue I suffered with at the magazine in the beginning. It needed more humor. So we [began] looking for lighter fare. Welcome to Sweetie Pie's works. Iyanla: Fix My Life was also a turning point. Having programming that was in alignment with the vision but also left the space to widen the lane for the vision. If it were up to me, I'd be doing [Winfrey's Sunday talk show] Super Soul Sunday conversations all the time.

Winfrey's play in the reality-television space is soon to include a show about women of color, though she says not to expect any of the ratchet behavior seen on other networks.

We're getting ready to do this  show called Crazy. Sexy. Life.  And it's about these four black women in New York. They're all professional women, and they actually like each other. So they're not calling each other bitches and ho's all the time. They're not standing on tables and throwing water in people's faces. And [yet], it's fun. It's  fun, it's humorous, but it also has heart and some depth and meaning.

And of course, OWN also owes a bit of gratitutde to Tyler Perry's original series now airing on the network. Winfrey says it almost didn't happen.

I don't hear, "That's a great idea, but it won't work." I hear, "We don't have the money right now," which is a very different position than I've ever been in. With the Oprah show, it was literally, "Okay, we want to take an entire audience to Australia. How do we do that?" When Tyler Perry first approached me and said, "I could write something for you," I said, "I can't afford you." [Laughs.] So it's now, "Can we take some money from this, and use this, and figure out a way that we can pay for a new series from Tyler? And where will that put us by the end of next year?"

The network's Saturday lineup is in the top 10 of cable networks for its target demo of women under 55, and in August it finished as one of the top 20 ad-supported networks airing during prime time. To many, it's obvious what Winfrey has done: She's cultivated a niche audience by filling the void of black faces that she knows exists in television.

Of course, Winfrey didn't get to where she is by playing the race card and proclaiming that she found her footing with black actors and personalities. Instead she talks about uplifting programming while entertaining the masses. But it's important to note that at one point in the interview, Winfrey says that her intention with the network is to put up a mirror that reflects people's lives. One look at her network's programming, and it's obvious which people she's talking about.

Read more at Vulture.

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