Oprah Winfrey had long been looking for something that would keep OWN viewers from switching to other channels. The answer to her prayers turned out to be a juicy drama series set in a house of worship.
“Greenleaf,” which co-stars Winfrey in a recurring role, premiered last year as the most-watched debut in the six-year history of her network and has given the media mogul a boost of confidence.
“It helped me trust my instincts, because for the first couple of years of OWN, I lost a sense of what would work or not,” Winfrey said. “We were trying to do so many different things. Trying, trying and trying things all the time. When this worked, I thought ‘OK, I now see that when you move and operate specifically from the core of what you believe is right, it works.’”
“Greenleaf ” delves into a story about the troubled first family of a sprawling Memphis, Tennessee, megachurch where adultery and domestic abuse causes disorder. The second season of the show premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. EDT on OWN.
The show stars Merle Dandridge as Grace “Gigi” Greenleaf, the estranged daughter who returns home after 20 years and is trying to investigate her family’s past crimes. Her character has been thrust into the pulpit as a pastor at her family’s megachurch business, which is ran by her parents, Bishop James (Keith David) and Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield). Winfrey plays the role of bar owner Mavis McCready, the sister of Lady Mae.
Whitfield said she’s always trusted Winfrey’s vision, but she initially wondered how viewers would perceive the show, which Winfrey is co-executive producer.
“We didn’t know what it was going to be like,” Whitfield said. “But going through the summer and seeing how social media critiqued it, people really loved and craved the story. It shows her instincts were right. But it goes back to the honesty of the show. People are really relating to the core of our characters and the situations that are setup.”
Winfrey believed she had a compelling story on her hands with “Greenleaf,” knowing the show was “meaningful, juicy and soapy” enough to draw consistent viewers but wondered if the numbers would ultimately back that up. Her worries were short lived after she saw the first season’s overall ratings.
The show also pulled in an average of more than 3.2 million viewers, only second behind Tyler Perry’s hit show “The Haves and Have Nots,” which averaged 3.7 million, according to Nielsen.
The results caused Winfrey to breathe a sigh of relief, especially since there was no huge marketing budget behind “Greenleaf.” The network tried to use the leverage of Perry’s strong fan base through his shows on the network to launch a new series, but struggled for years to fill the void until “Greenleaf.”
Winfrey said the show brought new energy to her network.
“In the past, we couldn’t get Tyler’s audience to stay for anything,” she said. “They would just come in and then they go. So to be able to get a great percentage of his audience, I think around 70 percent, to stay tuned for something else other than a Tyler-produced show, it was a new feat for us. It was a new accomplishment for us.”
Some originally thought “Greenleaf” would be an attack on black churches. But that wasn’t how the show was received by churchgoers who watched the series, said Dandridge.
“They really embraced it,” said the actor, acknowledging that her family who attends black churches supports the show’s content. “It’s powerfully meaningful to me. I think for some people, they are like voyeurs of what happens behind those walls.”
With the success of “Greenleaf,” it opened the door for another hit show on OWN: “Queen Sugar.”
“With both shows, we’re trying to hit the nerve of reality that resides in every person,” Winfrey said.