After years in the making, the moment of destiny is at hand: Two of entertainment's most prominent super power brokers are joining forces, prompting a parade of hoopla, self-congratulation — and skepticism.
If it were a summer movie, it might be titled "Tyler Perry's Oprah: OWNing It."
Or doubters might suggest an alternative: "Crass of the Titans."
Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, longtime friends and probably the most influential African American figures in show business, are leading the Oprah Winfrey Network into the scripted series arena this summer. Perry, whose empire is grounded by his hugely successful plays, films and TV series, will produce, direct and develop series exclusively for OWN.
The agreement is positioned by their respective camps as a win-win — the network, which Winfrey co-owns with Discovery Communications Inc., gets a marquee attraction: his considerable fan base composed largely of African American females and a crop of original shows to bolster the current slate of reality series and headline-grabbing interviews conducted by Winfrey.
And Perry, who had been flirting with the concept of starting his own network, gets a home for his prolific TV output from his Atlanta-based studio, including his first TV drama, "The Haves and the Have Nots," premiering Tuesday, centered on an affluent white family and the black hired help working for them in their lavish mansion.
Launching the next night is "Love Thy Neighbor," a sitcom set in a family-run diner and in the raucous, slapstick vein of Perry's "Meet the Browns" and "House of Payne" that aired on TBS. "For Better Or Worse," a comedy about a married couple that is being picked up by OWN after airing two seasons on TBS, comes in the fall.
The new shows mark a turning point for the network, which has suffered a stream of executive upheavals, programming missteps and lackluster ratings since its 2011 launch. Those stumbles have prevented the network from reaching the golden heights expected of any extension of the former talk show host, who once commanded a daily audience of 10 million devoted viewers. OWN's average nightly prime-time audience is a mere 347,000 viewers.
The timing in one regard seems to be right. OWN is no longer an industry punch line; ratings were up 30% last year compared with 2011, and the network is expected to be profitable this year. "We feel very good about where we are right now," said Erik Logan, the president of OWN. "Tyler's shows have very hooky story lines and very relatable characters. It feels good for the network."
The duo has approached the venture with an air of historical importance, casting it as the "creative marriage" of two massively popular brands that is all but guaranteed to be a smash hit that can help define the network much like "Duck Dynasty" on A&E or "Portlandia" on IFC.
"We both know how rare this is," said Winfrey in June's Essence magazine cover story. "Where else in the history of African American culture have two really, really successful people who can do whatever they want say, 'Let's come together and be even more powerful — let's take it to the 10th power'"?
But even before its launch, the Perryization of OWN is shadowed by questions. Some industry insiders say merging Winfrey's philosophy of empowerment and enlightenment that has appealed to a sophisticated, female audience with Perry's critically panned formula of low-brow humor sprinkled with what many see as cartoonish African American images smacks of desperation.
Said Ron Taylor, a former Fox Broadcasting executive: "Oprah has been known for having the broadest crossover appeal ever seen on television. Perry is known as a producer of niche urban shows for a specific, targeted audience. This partnership seems consistent with his personal brand but not hers."
"Oprah really needs Tyler's success, which might be surprising because she was so popular for so long," said Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. "She has avoided an overt connection with racial issues, while his work is especially racial, particularly in the style of comedy and the stereotypes."
Winfrey and Perry declined to be interviewed for this story.
The intense marketing campaign includes billboards featuring Perry and Winfrey (with no mention of the shows) and ads in magazines such as Essence and Winfrey's O. A spot for "The Haves and the Have Nots," popped up during the season finale of ABC's hit drama "Scandal."