Since its auspicious debut on January 1, 2011, OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, has struggled, and Winfrey was recently forced to lay off one-fifth of the network’s staff and “restructure” its operations in New York and Los Angeles. Viewership for OWN programming has been unimpressive, as evidenced by the short-lived Rosie O’Donnell talk show, which was recently cancelled.
However, there is one bright light for the network, and that would be “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s,” a “docu-series” set in the popular St. Louis soul food restaurant owned by Robbie “Miss Robbie” Montgomery, who was once a background vocalist for soul luminaries such as Ike & Tina Turner, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle, honing her culinary skills on the road during the segregated ’60s, when she and her bandmates were often denied access to “whites-only” restaurants.
A health scare ended Montgomery’s singing career but not her enterprising spirit. Armed with the family recipes handed down by her mother, she sold her soul food sensations from the trunk of her car before opening her first Sweetie Pie’s restaurant 15 years ago, with the help of her family. Eight years later, Miss Robbie opened her second location in the Mangrove neighborhood.
Featured on “Diners, Dives and Drive-Ins,” Sweetie Pie’s, which has attracted a high profile clientele that includes Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Academy Award-winning actress Mo’Nique and even President Barack Obama, is truly a family affair, with Montgomery’s son, Tim Norman, serving as her business manager and right-hand man. They are ably assisted by Tim’s wife, Jenae, and to a lesser degree by Miss Robbie’s nephew Charles, who “works hard at not working,” and can often be found behind the building taking a cigarette break.
Before the premiere of “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s” on October 15, 2011, OWN was being sharply criticized for the absence of programming featuring African Americans. Ironically, “Sweetie Pie’s” the network’s first African-American series, became the first breakout success for OWN, and will be returning with 10 all-new episodes beginning at 9 p.m. on Saturday, March 31.
Montgomery, though pleased, is clearly amazed by her show’s instant and overwhelming success, and said during a recent national teleconference, “I still cannot believe it! I feel like I’m still dreaming. I’m thankful that this did happen. This is one of the things that you worry about, being a Black family. Is this something that everybody is going to be receptive to? Are they going to criticize it? And for [Oprah] to even give us the opportunity to be on her network — a Black woman, a real Black family — I’m just excited about it and thankful that she picked us.”
When asked how the show how the show came to Winfrey’s attention, Montgomery proudly responded, “It was my son’s idea to film the restaurant — a working a family in the restaurant and the fights that we have, the disagreements and the things that go on behind stage — he had pursued that and nobody was actually interested.”
“I just had an idea for a positive show,” Tim Norman explained. “I hate to mention other shows on television, but the ‘Housewives’ series and ‘Love & Hip Hop,’ you don’t see a lot of positive Black television out there. People would come in the restaurant and watch Mama and I argue, and it was really funny, so I just decided to take cameras to it. We shot the pilot and it just started exchanging hands, and eventually the timing was right. It got out to L.A. when ‘O’ was looking for programming. It just worked out beautiful — a God thing.”
The new season will focus on the newest member of the family, Tim and Jenae’s infant son, TJ, as well as the family’s third restaurant, Sweetie Pie’s — The Upper Crust, which is currently under construction. Norman gave viewers a sneak peek at the coming season saying, “I just want everybody to be prepared to see us building our new building, and our new business. Additional members of our family have come onto the television show, especially my little son TJ. You’ll see me doing ‘Daddy Day Care’ and a bunch of other things — trying to change diapers!”
Grateful that her show, her family and her cuisine have been embraced by the American viewers, Montgomery said in conclusion, “We are truly blessed, and we’re excited about the extension of our first season, and we’re looking forward to doing more. We hope everybody likes it … and it seems like the world has been with us. They’ve been praying for our little grandson, and God has answered that, and the show is successful, and we’re just thankful and excited to keep doing it.”
Things finally seem to have clicked at OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, beginning with the production of "Welcome to Sweetie Pie's" and exploding with "Iyanla: Fix My Life," which premiered on Sept. 15. Now Winfrey has joined forces with her friend and colleague Tyler Perry, recently announcing "an exclusive partnership" to "become his singular destination for all new television series and projects, including two new scripted series for the network to premiere in mid 2013." These will be the first original scripted series for OWN and Perry will executive produce, write and direct both series.
According to the network, the announcement comes as OWN'S momentum and ability to draw new viewers continues to grow. The network closed its third consecutive quarter of year-over-year, double-digit ratings gains across primetime and total day in the key women 25-54 demo (up 63 and 70 percent, respectively) and saw triple-digit ratings growth in September.
Having established himself as a highly successful director and playwright with "urban theater" productions such as "I Know I've Been Changed,” "I Can Do Bad All By Myself," "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "Madea's Family Reunion," he moved on to the small screen, with his popular sitcoms "Tyler Perry's House of Payne," "Meet the Browns" and "For Better or Worse" — all massive hits with rcord-breaking ratings. "House of Pain," Perry's first TV venture, premiered as cable's biggest comedy debut ever, and remained basic cable's top-rated sitcom until the premiere of Perry's second series, "Meet the Browns."
"I have been looking forward to the day when we would be in the position to enter the world of scripted television. That day has come," said Oprah Winfrey, CEO, OWN. "We are all energized by the opportunity to collaborate with Tyler, who has a proven track record for producing highly successful cable series. He has an incredible ability to illuminate life stories and characters in his unique voice and inspires and encourages people all over the world."
"It's a dream realized to partner with Oprah and bring scripted programming to OWN," stated Perry. "She has accomplished so much with the network and I'm excited to work with her to be part of its continued growth."
"Bringing Tyler Perry exclusively to OWN is a major coup. Today's announcement demonstrates the power of the Oprah brand to attract some of the biggest names in television and film to OWN," said Davis Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery Communications. "OWN's growth over the past nine months has been nothing short of phenomenal and, with the continued support of our advertising and affiliate partners, this bold move into scripted entertainment positions OWN to continue that momentum going forward."