Tyler Perry was tweeting up a storm during the May premiere of “The Haves and the Have Nots,” his first TV drama for OWN, the network co-owned by his longtime friend Oprah Winfrey.
“Keep watching this show. It is going to BLOW YOUR MIND from week to week,” tweeted Perry to his 2.5 million followers about his soap opera that revolves around a wealthy white family and the black hired help. “Now tomorrow, make sure you talk about how good this show is at your job, OK?”
About a month after the launch of Perry’s show — and another, a comedy called “Love Thy Neighbor” — people are still talking about the new OWN lineup, though not always positively. While both scripted programs set network records for viewership in their premieres, the shows ratings have dipped significantly since then, and also reignited an ongoing debate within the African American community about negative stereotypes.
Some African Americans have found Perry’s comedy particularly offensive. “Love Thy Neighbor” is set in a family-run diner and stars Patrice Lovely as Mama Hattie, a character who dishes out insults in a shrill, exaggerated voice.
A Rutgers University professor called Perry “a cultural batterer,” who perpetuates destructive images of black women.
Heightening the debate is the linking of two immensely popular brands that some critics view as being at cross-purposes in their mission. Fantastically wealthy and beloved, Winfrey built a business empire promoting personal improvement and self-empowerment. Meanwhile, Perry also enjoyed enormous success in films and television through mostly broad, low-brow humor and preachiness.
Ratings for Perry’s two series have dropped as much as 30%, according to Nielsen research data — a decline that insiders say may be cause for concern. But at least publicly, OWN executives say they are pleased with the results so far and point out that both programs are a hit with the network’s target demographic — females ages 25 to 54.
What remains unclear, however, is whether the Perry projects will pay off for OWN; its 2011 launch was followed by consistently low ratings and a series of executive departures.
Perry and Winfrey declined to be interviewed for this story, though they have talked with Essence and other media outlets that have given them glowing coverage about their association and friendship.
But in an interview with Winfrey on “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” Perry sidestepped his critics, pointing out that his popularity with millions of fans demonstrates he is doing something right. Perry added that it would be “ridiculous and suicidal” to try and please critics by changing his artistry.
His fans have praised the two shows as the latest example of his golden formula — the mixing of ribald humor and outrageous characters with a dose of faith and messages about family togetherness. Larry Buford, a reviewer for the Electronic Urban Report website, which follows black culture and entertainment, said “The Haves and the Have Nots” was poised to “be the new ‘Dallas’ of the 21st century.”
“I knew that would get a lot of reaction, and it did,” said Buford, a regular contributor to the site.
“I really think Tyler’s partnership with Oprah is going to be very fruitful,” added Buford, who is a particular fan of the character Madea, the outspoken grandmother created and played by Perry. “He’s recalibrating the scale.”
But the criticism of those who didn’t like the Perry OWN programs went beyond the usual complaints about buffoonish images. Brittney Cooper, an assistant professor of women’s studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University, called Perry a hater of black women, as well as artistically stunted.
“The irony of what’s happening is that he has made a fortune vilifying women like Oprah — independent smart women who are not in a traditional marriage, who needs to be punished for her independence,” said Cooper, who criticized the shows online for Crunk Feminist Collective, a group that describes itself as “hip-hop generation” feminists.
In a post, she said she was offended by three black characters in “The Haves and the Have Nots”: Hanna, a maid “who speaks like she just got off the plantation,” Veronica, a rich black “bitch,” and Candace, the maid’s daughter who is “a scheming, conniving prostitute.”
Cooper argued that Winfrey has been so dazzled by Perry’s tale of overcoming poverty and family problems that she does not see the danger posed by his female characters.
Critics, including the Los Angeles Times’ Mary McNamara, also lashed out at Perry’s shows, skewering them for their poor execution and their incompatibility with Winfrey’s philosophy of growth and faith.
This week, “The Haves and the Have Nots” pulled in 1.3 million viewers, down from its initial 1.8 million. Meanwhile “Love Thy Neighbor” drew 1.2 million viewers in its second week, a drop of about a third, according to Nielsen research data.
Media analyst Brad Adgate said the ratings “are still four times what the network averages in prime time, which is about 350,000 viewers. But it’s still a wait-and-see situation.”
Executives maintain that they are “very pleased.”