Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey: Want To Fix Your TV Network? Here’s How
First, let me begin with a shallow and totally unrelated issue to the Oprah Television Network (OWN): Miss Lady, your hair is always hooked and fabulous and Andre is A Beauty Genius. I’ve always wanted to tell you that. Now that I have, let me move on.
Oprah, I read about your concerns for OWN today in The Huffington Post . Apparently, viewership isn’t what you had hoped for in the first year of your network. However, you have vowed to continue with OWN, which makes me really happy. As far as I know, you’re the only African American woman who ever started a television network. But I was more than a bit concerned when you mentioned that you didn’t want OWN to become “the Roots network”—meaning a Black network.
That statement of yours confused me. First, it implies that there’s something wrong with starting a network focused on African Americans. Second, it implies that African Americans don’t watch television—a lot.
But let me try to get past my hurt Black feelings to your colorblind financial realism in this matter: you want a TV network that appeals to a “mainstream” audience so you can make money. This means you have to attract White viewers, and so, the logic goes, if you attract White viewers, the rest will come. “Rest,” meaning “people of color.”
I hear you, Miss Lady. Your logic certainly worked with your germinal talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show. Every woman—and a lot of men—that I knew watched your show five days a week. We had to; otherwise, we’d miss what everyone was talking about the next day. And we couldn’t have that.
I started watching back in college in 1987, and I was a loyal follower for about 15 years. And then— let me be frank—I just got tired of your being rich.
Oprah, I don’t mean to “throw shade.” Your show was revolutionary. I loved it. I credit you with changing American society, and this is no flattery. For example, your show moved the dialogue about sexual abuse out of the closet. In addition, your featuring openly gay and lesbian folks on your show also started a much needed tolerance dialogue.
But in later years, I got tired of episodes featuring 1000-count sheets and lobster paella and whatnot. And even though I greatly admired your humanitarian work, I just couldn’t connect anymore. And one of the reasons is that I didn’t feel as if you were talking to everyone in your audience. Honestly, I thought that, with a few exceptions, you were only talking to White women.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those Black folks who define “blackness” within very narrow boundaries. I know there are African Americans who occupy many different categories. We all don’t fit into one box. Still, I didn’t feel very, well, noticed in the last years of your show. And so—gulp—I stopped watching.
But wait, Oprah! There’s a good ending to this!
While I stopped watching you on TV, I still had to get my Oprah fix. You’d become part of my life—entered my DNA, even. So, I started reading O Magazine. At first, I’d just pick up an issue on the newsstand. In the southwestern, conservative area I live in, there are very few magazines offered with African Americans on the cover. I’d be in the grocery or drug store and see the magazine and my heart would give a little jump. “There’s Oprah!” I’d exclaim (to myself so I didn’t look crazy.)
Then, I got hooked on O and decided to subscribe, and I’ve never regretted it. And let me tell you why.
O is a truly multicultural magazine—but it doesn’t make a big deal about “diversity” or draw attention to it. It’s not billed that way; it just is that way. I see ads featuring women of color alongside ads featuring White women—classy, not stereotypical ads. And I read articles written by women of all complexions telling me it’s okay to be strong, healthy, successful, whether I’m married, single, child-free or a mother.
And not only that, you present women of all ages, not just stick-thin model-girls who got their periods three years ago. (Not that we didn’t all have to start menstruating at some point, but I’m closer to menopause than training bras now, so I don’t want to be reminded of that unfortunate time when I didn’t know the tampon applicator didn’t go up there, too.)
O Magazine is off the chain, Oprah.
Do you see where I’m going with this? I’m saying that you need to make OWN less like your talk show in its last years and more like your magazine in its present years.
Look, Sister, I know you need to make your money. I’m not trying to mess up your hustle. I’m not asking for television charity for Negroes. I know in order for you to create a financially successful network you need to attract White viewers, in the same way you needed to do that for your talk show. I’m not saying that demographic isn’t important. But I am saying that Native American, Latina/Hispanic, Black and Asian women need and want programming, too, and many of us have cable television subscriptions.
Oprah, women of color are an extremely untapped market in television viewing. We want woman-first programming—and we want it to be classy and sensitive. We don’t want to see ourselves stereotyped. But we don’t have that programming yet. You could give us that, in the same matter-of-fact, calm manner that you give us what we need with magazine reading–and you could have your White viewers as well.
In the same way that you transformed the talk show, I’m positive you could transform the way a cable television network is run. Oprah, you have the vision, the determination—and let’s keep it real, the deep pockets. You got this, Miss Lady.
Love, your imaginary friend and actual fan,