Realscreen Live held a fireside chat with Oprah Winfrey Network president Tina Perry on Wednesday (June 9) where Perry detailed the Discovery-owned net’s unscripted programming and the work she and her team have done to identify and reach their audience.
The discussion, hosted by NPR TV critic Eric Deggans, delved into what’s worked so far in OWN’s unscripted programming, 10 years since it launched in 2011. Perry was named president of OWN in 2019, where she oversees all operations and creative areas at the network, reporting to Winfrey.
The network has evolved to see itself as a leading destination for Black audiences. Series such as Love & Marriage: Huntsville and Family or Fiancé were positive examples Perry cited of the kind of unscripted programming that OWN wants to air because of the intention of the storytelling, the authenticity and how relevant and relatable those series feel, fitting in with OWN’s moniker “See yourself.”
The network has flourished in its efforts to reach Black female viewers, who Perry says were much more underserved by media 10 years ago when OWN launched. Titles like the reality series Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s found success on OWN despite not having a major star attached to it, and laid the groundwork for future unscripted programming that appealed to Black female viewers.
“The last three years, I spent a lot of time internally at the network doing a lot of research and projects so that all of us at OWN could know her better, our viewer better,” Perry said.
“It’s important to me that all of us at the network really can put a name and a face and fuel our imagination when we talk about her.”
Perry’s own passion for identifying and relating to the network’s viewers came from watching Winfrey, and OWN collaborator Tyler Perry, and seeing the “immense respect” that she could tell they had for their viewers and what they wanted.
She reflected on the massive audience of millions of people that would tune into The Oprah Winfrey Show each day, and how inspired she was at how seriously the host took this audience by trying to understand what mattered to them and how to entertain them.
This has resulted in Perry having a detailed idea of OWN’s target audience. She explained she believes that the woman representing their target audience cares about family, spirituality, her health, often lives in intergenerational households, is a high TV consumer and while she isn’t always happy with how she’s portrayed in reality TV, she still consumes it in high volume.
“It’s such a priority at the network right now,” Perry said.
“If you ask anyone there, we have been, for the last few years, knowing our audience and knowing her better than anyone, because that’s going to give us a competitive advantage.”
When she started as OWN president, Perry said she wanted content that dug deeper into Black culture and lifestyle in a more multidimensional way with compelling characters and stories, ignoring old stereotypes and settings.
She also advised that networks shouldn’t be afraid of tried and true unscripted tropes — such as series about marriage or people living in a house together — and putting that through a different cultural filter. Family or Fiance, Put a Ring On It and Ready to Love are OWN series that Perry said aren’t necessarily original in format, but are good examples of using trusted, effective unscripted formats in new ways.
“Look across the Black communities, culture, characters, people, environments and look for those interesting people who would make great TV or documentaries,” Perry said.
Perry has worked at OWN since 2009, two years before the network launched, which she called a “herculean task” to get off the ground. When Perry moved into the role as network president, she says there was a learning curve in managing so many people and nurturing talent.
Now, she’s faced another challenge with the rest of the network in the COVID-19 pandemic. But Perry said she feels OWN is emerging from the pandemic now as production schedules become more predictable and reliable, even as the network continues to use COVID-19 safety protocols.
The health crisis did have one upside, with the potential to improve work environments in the future, Perry said. She said she’s seen a greater sensitivity to work-life balance in the past year, and more thoughtfulness and care towards allowing workers to look after their childcare and mental health needs. She also said she thinks the work environment will change as more people can participate virtually.
“There’s going to be a harmony and efficiency in meetings when even if half the meeting is on a Zoom camera and the other half is in a room, where I think before the pandemic that felt a little more awkward,” Perry said.
Realscreen Live runs through to Friday, June 11.