Tina Perry at OWN Studios in West Hollywood, California
When her parents would drop her at the mall at noon for the Saturday movies, the young Tina Perry didn't need a pickup before 7:30. and when she had homework to do, she didn't delay — there was TV to watch when she was through.
So it's not surprising that she dreamed about a career in entertainment. But for Perry, that meant a career behind the scenes — not behind the camera directing, but even deeper. and now she directs it all — as president of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.
A soft-spoken woman who chooses her words carefully, Perry began at OWN as vice-president of legal and business affairs, even before the network's first show aired on January 1, 2011. In January 2019 she began serving as president.
She heads the network's operations and creative side as well as the digital division (encompassing the Watch OWN app, the website Oprah.com and the podcast unit) and OWN's presence on the streaming service Discovery+, which launched in January.
"My goal coming in was to continue to build upon the great work of Oprah and the previous teams, the foundation they had laid," Perry says by phone from her Los Angeles home. "We already had a very robust slate of scripted storytellers — I wanted to grow that while also providing our audiences with more opportunities to see themselves.
"Very early on, Oprah and I had conversations about creating more [programming around] meaningful experiences and conversations and one-off tentpole-type events. And I wanted to grow the brand in the unscripted space. Those are some of the things I was thinking about when we first started, and I hope to keep continuing to build on them."
By all accounts, Perry is succeeding.
Pleased with the ongoing success of the drama Queen Sugar, she is also excited about Delilah, from Craig Wright, creator of Greenleaf, which ended on OWN last August. The new series chronicles best friends who are attorneys, one climbing the corporate ladder, one championing just causes.
Meanwhile, unscripted shows — including Ready to Love and Put a Ring on It — have brought the network dramatic viewership increases on Friday nights.
As far as tentpole events and national conversations, Winfrey's two-night special on racism in America, OWN Spotlight: Where Do We Go From Here?, did exceptionally well when it was simulcast across the Discovery networks last June. Perry would like to see more forays into this arena.
The core demographic is African-American women aged 25 to 54, with "the sweet spot" being a woman in her 40s, Perry says. From the beginning, she's been determined to serve the viewers and remain mindful of their needs. She tracks that on social media, where she reads comments and values the feedback.
"She has been underserved in the media and has not always had a variety of stories told about herself," Perry says of the OWN audience. "And she loves to come to an environment where we superserve that to her. She is looking to see herself in the media that she consumes and relates to in a very personal way."
For Perry, this viewer isn't some fictional, focus-grouped product. Oprah Winfrey, who is CEO of OWN, notes that this typical viewer is someone Perry knows intimately.
"We have a predominately Black, female audience," Winfrey points out. "And [Perry is] Black and female. And there is nothing like having lived it." Winfrey did just that over 25 seasons of her syndicated Oprah Winfrey Show. "Our producers were mostly female," she says. Then, as now
at OWN, "we are programming to the people we are speaking to, and we are speaking to them out of our own experiences."
As for Perry, "she has the lived experience of being Black and female," Winfrey continues, "and knowing where that audience needs to be served, what the cultural pinpoints are, and knowing how to get that done. I think she's really great at team-building. I think she's really great at listening and collaborating."
Perry's collaborative side is evident to all who work with her. Her receptive manner and analytical approach make her an effective leader, says David Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery, Inc. (At launch, OWN was owned 50/50 by Discovery and Winfrey's Harpo Studios; Discovery has since increased its share to 95 percent.)
"She was the lawyer doing all the deals for the company, and I am a lawyer, and as one, you tend to see things very clearly," Zaslav says.
"She was doing the programming deals and the talent deals, and she is super talented. She is unusual in that she is strong on the business side, the deal side, and also has a real creative drive. And she has managed to achieve the most important thing to us, which is to have OWN reflect the audience behind the screen and in front of the screen.
"She has taken on Oprah's ambition and Oprah's drive, and my drive and our drive behind OWN to create quality programming to inform and entertain and inspire in the Black community. Oprah has been on a mission with OWN, and Tina has been on a mission, too."
Growing up in Oklahoma City, Perry wasn't sure exactly how her love of movies and television could turn into a career. "I consumed so much film and TV," she says, "but I didn't understand the business of it. When I got to college and began to meet people from southern California, I started to connect the dots that this was an industry, and that was behind how all those shows and movies got made."
Even if Perry sped through schoolwork to watch her favorite shows, she was a stellar student, eventually notching an academic triple crown: Stanford, Harvard, Oxford. As an undergraduate at Stanford, Perry studied political science and was considering an MBA. She had a great example of entrepreneurship close by: "My father owned a Black barbershop and was a businessman, so I always had a great respect for business," she says.
Perry was initially torn between business and law until someone advised her that a JD might be more useful than an MBA "because the whole industry is a big negotiation," she says. "And that is what led me to law school." At Harvard Law School, her goals of running a business and working in entertainment gelled: "I love creative people. I wanted to help creative people tell their stories, and I knew I loved the business."
That intersection of creativity and business remains her passion. And though armed with two prestigious degrees, Perry opted for one more: a master's from Oxford in comparative social policy.
"I have always been a very political, pro-social person," she says. "When I was still in law school, I applied to Oxford to feed that side of my interests, to look at social policies around the world."
And so, she was off to England. What people take with them is always revealing, especially on a huge move. Perry decided she needed a big box of used books about various facets of the entertainment industry. It cost a small fortune to ship them overseas, but she read those books about screenwriting, television history and music.
In London she developed a new passion — art. A show at the Saatchi Gallery featuring emerging U.K. artists was a revelation. "It was just a jaw- dropper," Perry recalls. "I remember vividly going to the show, and that was the moment that the contemporary art bug bit me. I had been looking at old masters' work. That show turned me in a different direction."
Her interest has grown. In addition to collecting art, Perry now sits on the board of CalArts, one of the country's premier art schools. Tim Disney, chair of the CalArts board of trustees, recalls becoming aware of Perry "being very active in the arts scene in L.A., encouraging young artists and artists of color and people who have been partially shut out of the main scene.
"Art is a strange thing," he adds, "as it relates to entertainment and movies, and there is an uneasy connection between the different aspects. Tina understands that, and she navigates that intersection so well. She respects the power of the art itself to affect people, to be a disproportionate voice in the cultural conversation."
(Perry is also a member of the board of directors of the Television Academy Foundation, the Los Angeles board of governors of the Paley Center for Media and the advisory board of Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center, among others.) ...
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This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2021