Oprah Winfrey’s fledgling TV network is growing up fast.
The five-year-old OWN network, a joint venture between Winfrey and Discovery Communications (DISCA), is on the brink of a transformation. Originally launched as a platform for self-improvement shows, its new dramas rival the ambitions of more established cable channels like HBO and Showtime.
“When I started this network five years ago, every word that was written—the narrative for OWN—was struggling, struggling, struggling,” Winfrey says during a Tribeca Film Festival panel after the world premiere of one of her new shows, Greenleaf. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reports that in the early days of the network, it had a hard time to filling its schedule and delivering on its audience guarantees to advertisers.
Now, WSJ reports that OWN is the highest-rated cable network among African-American women, a status that is sure to be solidified thanks to Greenleaf—in which Winfrey herself plays a starring role—and Queen Sugar, the Ava DuVernay-directed drama scheduled to premiere later this year.
“Our team got together and had the dream of being able to do this kind of scripted television,” Winfrey says of Greenleaf, a drama about the family of the pastor of a Tennessee megachurch, scheduled to premiere in June. “Every day on set our team would say ‘I can’t believe this is happening! I can’t believe we’re doing this!'”
Winfrey credits much of the turnaround to TV producer Tyler Perry, whose show The Haves and Have Nots has given OWN its highest ratings ever, according to Variety. “It is because of the foundation that Tyler laid for us at OWN that we’re able to move into Greenleaf,” she tells the Tribeca audience.
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In addition to executive producing the show, Winfrey plays Aunt Mavis, sister of the “First Lady”—the term used to refer to the pastor’s wife, who is played by Emmy winner Lynn Whitfield. “[The First Lady] is the exalted queen of all things in the black church,” Winfrey says, explaining Whitfield’s character’s significance to the “white people” in the audience.
Such nuances are just one example of the differences between black and white church communities in the U.S., differences that the show doesn’t shy away from—and even embraces—in a way that will surprise fans of The Oprah Winfrey Show.