The Oprah Illusion: The Reality of OWN

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Just because you rise to head an army, does not mean you’re part of the power system. – Amos Wilson on slave generals

As the launch of OWN came on New Year’s Day it seemed that a number of worlds were a buzz and all for very different reasons. The cable world was a buzz as it wonders if the “Oprah Effect” can help it continue to close the advertisement revenue gap that exists between cable and broadcast channels. The battle for advertising dollars currently sees cable companies getting only 39% of the advertising revenue pie. African America was a buzz because finally our shining star of wealth would be finally in possession of her very own network. The hope by many is that we will see positive images of African Americans and especially African American women, which is something that we all agree is sorely lacking in America’s mindset and our own community. This, after all, is the beauty of ownership – you get to dictate what your company puts out. But that is assuming you have not just an ownership stake but majority or controlling ownership. We were told this is Oprah’s Network so she must own it all right? Well, not exactly. Unfortunately, this is where our lack of financial literacy at times gets us in trouble. Technically, I own Disney but then again so do a lot of other owners of Disney shares. My say so in the direction of Disney is equal to that of my ownership stake. This leads me into the illusion of OWN.

Let me point out a few things. The first and probably most important thing is that this is a partnership between Oprah & Discovery, a 50/50 partnership at that. Discovery ponied up the $200 million to kick-start the infrastructure for the network, which was previously Discovery Health, so unless the big O finds a way to gain another percentage point in ownership, she will not have absolute control of the network without first having to check with her partner. Discovery will have equal say so in programming and all other things as it pertains to the OWN network. The appointing of an African American woman CEO might have been more symbolic for appearance sake than anything else. Not saying this is the case but with the CEO being the most public figure after Oprah herself, if one wanted to keep up the notion that this is indeed “Oprah’s Network” then this is a good move. See Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

We see similar cases of strong and silent European American influence over perceived African American controlled media. Like BET, who unknown to most of us until the sale had a large shareholder in Liberty Media who held a 33% stake in BET giving it quite a large say so in the direction of the company. Another African American perceived owned outlet is TVOne. It too is not majority owned by Radio One but a partnership with Comcast. In this instance it is highly likely that Radio One is actually a minority owner (given its financial state – market value of Radio One is $65 million versus Comcast $63 billion) and Comcast the majority.

Oprah’s company ironically could be one of very few African America’s businesses that creates voluminous amounts of capital flight out of the European & Asian America groups into African America. In the way that Arab & Asian stores create capital flight out of our neighborhoods into their own by the stores they own in our community. Far more money is going out of African America than coming, even with Oprah. On a more macro level capital flight is currently happening from the European Diaspora into the Asian Diaspora (primarily China & India). These same principles apply here on the micro level within the country community to community.

My concerns about OWN are a bit more long-term. Is this network sustainable into another generation after Oprah passes?African America passes few generational assets along. None will be bigger than Oprah’s estate at the moment. Her estate could mean major windfalls for African Diaspora institutions here in the U.S., Africa and the Caribbean, which is a circulation of our global dollar – something we are sorely lacking. But again, is there a market for OWN or Harpo Productions without Oprah herself as the primary asset?

On a social level, it is hard to put much of any social value on the network for African America or African American women. Notice I said the network not Oprah. There is only one thing that European American controlled corporations like more than profits and that is power. Companies have been known to take losses on products just to control the market share of a product and drive competitors out of the space. John Rockefeller was infamous for this in maintaining the oil inventory under his control in early 20th century and in more modern times we’ve seen DeBeers use this same ploy to control 85% of the world’s diamonds.

Power to control the social capital of the society in this case is no different. In order to do so they must maintain the status quo of where an African American woman’s value is in the society. This despite African American women controlling $0.85 of every $1.00 in African America’s $913 billion buying power pie, the second largest buying power of any ancestral diaspora in the U.S. trailing only that of European America (although Latino America is on the verge of surpassing us). The danger of allowing African American women to gather social capital is that African American women are more than willing to fight for the survival of the African Diaspora than many in society would like to give them credit for. They have and continue to fill the void of African American men being swept away by the system through abnormally high death rates, incarceration, and poor education. Thus they provide the “doggy paddle in an ocean” for survival of African America as we continue to try and right our ship. Dr. John Henrik Clarke said it best “Powerful people cannot afford to educate the people that they oppress, because once you are truly educated, you will not ask for power. You will take it.” This is the crux of social capital and thus, with African American women controlling the economics of African America they too must be kept in their place for they pose a threat to those who control the society. If you control the society you control the economics and politics of it as well. One of the most powerful parts of social capital is a positive view of images of oneself and because of this we must realize why Oprah potentially does not have majority control of her own network.

But there is hope. This is the beauty of the stock market. If we want to influence the programming on OWN then buy shares of Discovery Communications, Inc. (Ticker Symbol:DISCA) and establish an African American & Diaspora ownership block. You would not only have influence over OWN but of all of Discovery’s assets. In the past I’ve made this same suggestion for buying Disney shares, as they are the owner of ESPN, which makes it revenue primarily from sports where the labor is predominantly African-American. An owner’s gripe that is invested in the company goes a lot further than just a gripe from the crowd.

Follow the money and power. The decisions, people, and institutions tend to explain the reality of what actually is rather than the illusion of what is presented.

Mr. Foster is the Interim Executive Director of HBCU Endowment Foundation, sits on the board of directors at the Center for HBCU Media Advocacy, & CEO of Sechen Imara Solutions, LLC. A former banker & financial analyst who earned his bachelor’s degree in Economics & Finance from Virginia State University as well his master’s degree in Community Development & Urban Planning from Prairie View A&M University. Publishing research on the agriculture economics of food waste as well as a contributing author for a number of African American media outlets.

2 Comments on "The Oprah Illusion: The Reality of OWN"

  1. Sherrell Jan 10, 2011 · 9:48 am

    Wow! Great eye opening article. I never once stopped to ask “WHo actualy owns OWN”. I just assumed it was 100% Oprah. I also didnt realize that TVOne was a partnership with Comcast. Thanks for the rude awakening and revealing a straegy of buying into these companies to obtain a stronger voice in prigramming–one should hope.

    Off to research Disney and Discovery stock.

  2. Daniella Mar 30, 2011 · 4:54 pm

    Wow! Thank you for really opening my eyes. Great Article!

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