The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) launched successfully, ranking third after the networks ESPN and USA among women in the age range of 25-54 during its first block of primetime programming. This debut dispelled speculation that Winfrey wouldn't be able to pull off this major media event, and is an impressive feat by anyone -- let alone a black woman. And though I'm enjoying some of the offerings, I was hoping OWN would display ethnic diversity in a way that historically hasn't always been reflected on The Oprah Winfrey Show. I found myself disappointed.
Winfrey's built an empire with her "cross-over appeal" because we all know that if you're a black person who wants to be A-list, it's important to be mainstream. Just ask Will Smith. Is there anything wrong with it? Not really, it's just part of the game. And Winfrey, who's been long criticized by some in the black community for not providing black experts a platform and jump-starting careers the way she has for Dr. Phil and Nate Berkus among others, has played this game like Serena Williams on her best day. She's been lobbing her intellect, business savvy and talent across the net of a white male dominated industry, defining and redefining television with vision. And yes, Winfrey did give spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant a chance back in the day that Vanzant admittedly sabotaged, but have we seen any other people of color since then (besides Winfrey's "bestie", Gayle King) springboard into super stardom via an association with her? Nope. It's a situation that feels parallel to that of the black men who get burned by one black woman and then decide we all suck. I understand the politics behind the makings of a black mogul, but when one attains that level of black power I would certainly like to see it used to provide a platform for more ethnic and cultural diversity because there still isn't enough on network or cable television, particularly in leading roles.
NBC canceled Undercovers, and the future of its drama, The Event, starring Blair Underwood looks questionable. And though cable television is doing a better job with diverse casting it also needs to open more doors. On an episode of the USA network show Psych the character Shawn, (James Roday, whose actually half Mexican but plays a white guy), makes a revealing quip, telling the character Gus, (Dule' Hill) he's the only black male lead on cable television. (That may actually not be true depending how you categorize Andre Braugher's role on TNT's Men of a Certain Age, but it still raises a good point.) So though Winfrey's new venture is a partnership with Discovery channel, the network is still black OWNed, and with a black female CEO, Christina Norman, it possesses an opportunity to provide smart programming relating to ethnic viewers; not only with the content but with the hosts of the shows as well. Time will tell if the winner of Your OWN Show will be a person of color. If that happens it will be great, and I'll want to see more.
Winfrey is not a black brand but she's still a black woman with a significant voice. I would like to see her leverage that and add more brown faces to her circle of media friends. More recently Winfrey's talk show has had a better amalgamation of guests and experts of color, but her empire is still marketed to a middle class white audience, as are most networks. So though we don't know all of what's coming down the pike on OWN, it's not surprising that currently there's virtually no ethnic diversity in the line-up of talent. Okay Lisa Ling has a show, but this makes me recall that time I spoke to a white network executive about the lack of diversity of writers for the channel's website, but pointed out that the one Asian person was a start. He just shrugged, verifying my observations that many have subconsciously dismissed Asians as being people of color. Well they are, but I would like to see even more diversity on OWN. It's not about Winfrey proving her ethnic solidarity as a black woman, but about using unprecedented power to provide unprecedented opportunity.
This is not to knock Winfrey, but to appeal to her. Women of color support Winfrey as well, and we have middle class money and tastes too. So it would be great for the audience and advantageous to the network if we could see reflections of ourselves and experiences on OWN. Winfrey got a black man in the White House so it's time to wield that clout and put some more brown faces on TV. Though some argue she has no obligation to diversify her programming I disagree. Winfrey clearly believes in the value of diversity in media having bankrolled several black projects including the films Beloved and The Great Debaters as well as the Broadway musical The Color Purple, so I would love to see this commitment translate to her channel.
Winfrey has enough power now not to have to play the game so hard anymore. Winfrey, you won. So let us all enjoy your victory and OWN your power to provide programming that reflects and respects the ethnic diversity of the world in which we live. (After all isn't being inclusive part of living your best life?) I'll keep watching OWN and keep hoping. Will you?
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