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."
But while network executives express confidence in the new direction, OWN is not making episodes of "The Haves and the Have Nots" and "Love Thy Neighbor" available to journalists or critics before their premieres, releasing only a "sizzle reel" of clips. Though Logan said the shows are "still being edited," the shutdown is consistent with Perry's practice of not pre-screening his films for critics.
What's more, the Tyler Perry brand is showing signs of wear and tear. "Peeples," the most recent Perry-produced film, bombed, marking the lowest opening ever for a movie with Perry's name attached to it.
As for his OWN product, "Love Thy Neighbor" at a glance appears like a recycling of Perry's formula of comedy pitched at a high volume, complete with a laugh track. The show is centered around Mama Hattie (Patrice Lovely), a character from his plays. Hattie, who wears thick glasses, a blue dress and stockings that don't reach her knees, clashes in a high-pitched voice with customers and family members. Says Tyler in a promo, "Funniest one I've done."
Scenes from "The Haves and the Have Nots" suggest that the show will be heavy on sex, betrayals and shirtless men. The most recognizable face in the cast is John Schneider from "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Smallville."
Despite the media blackout, Logan said having Perry on the network is an easy and natural fit: "A large part of living one's best life is to be able to laugh and be entertained. Millions have seen his sitcoms, and this dramatic show will be incredible. It's all a key part of the building blocks we're assembling. OWN has a very wide lane that has ways of being little pieces of light, empowerment and growth. Inside that lane is having the ability to laugh."
Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media, agreed that OWN's strategy makes sense: "A year ago, it was all about what's wrong with OWN. Now we're talking about content, not the drama behind the scenes and the difficulty of getting things on track and not living up to expectations the industry had set.
Every cable network has to expand off its base. It will be interesting to see how a Tyler Perry show falls in line with the core Oprah viewer."
Perry's brand of comedy has long been a lightning rod while his portrayal of the black experience, particularly that of black women, has polarized African Americans. But complaints about his artistry seem to be of little consequence to Perry's loyal followers — his work has generated roughly $574 million at the box office.
"There's something about his work that resonates with the experience and expectations of African Americans in general," said Tamura Lomax, assistant chair of the African American Studies department of Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on Perry's oeuvre. "He has this moralistic Christian message that people connect with. There's a real attraction to him because he's telling stories in a way that isn't heavy."
Still, many African Americans have particularly cringed at Madea, the gun-toting, insult-hurling grandmother played by Perry in a dress and heavy makeup in movies such as "Madea's Family Reunion" and "Madea Goes to Jail."
Perry is defensive about the character as well as his work. Insiders have said he was furious in 2010 when the animated series "The Boondocks" lampooned his films and Madea in the episode "Pause," depicting a thinly veiled version of Perry as a closeted cross-dresser who uses religion to hide his lifestyle. The episode aired on Cartoon Network, which, like TBS, is owned by Turner Broadcasting. Though company executives apologized to Perry, saying they should have warned him beforehand, the airing apparently damaged Perry's relationship with Turner, which may have paved the way for his deal with OWN.
And he's brought Madea with him — he/she is at the center of OWN's Perry marketing, which critics say crystallizes the core problem at the heart of the new venture.
In a promo that appears on OWN's website, Madea meets up with the stout, determined housewife Sofia, Winfrey's memorable character from "The Color Purple," which depicted the personal and social difficulties facing African American women in the Jim Crow South.
Lomax said many blacks have been offended by the spot. "Madea is this iconic figure that is kind of this caricature of black mothers. But then you have Sofia who has this incredible line that really speaks to the lives of black people — 'All my life, I've had to fight…' — that's true! People may see this joining of forces as kind of tainting the iconic beauty of what Sofia has represented in the black vernacular. It almost takes away the force of that line; it turns it into a joke."
Logan said he had not received any negative reaction about the promo. "The spot is very funny and entertaining. It's been embraced by everyone who's seen it."