The 2014-15 television season has seen more new successful shows featuring people of color in lead roles than at any time in recent memory. From Fox’s Empire to ABC’s Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat and How to Get Away With Murder to Starz’s Power, viewers are watching a bevy of multicultural shows on television.
Some observers would say that Tyler Perry laid the path that led to these shows on cable television almost a decade ago. The Atlanta-based writer/actor/producer’s first foray into TV, the 2006 launch of comedy Tyler Perry’s House of Payne on TBS, set cable ratings records and started a small-screen run for Perry, whose scripted comedies and dramas prominently showcase people of color in leading roles.
Perry, who will receive the T. Howard Foundation’s Champion Award during the diversity organization’s annual Awards Dinner in New York on March 25, has been a trailblazer for multicultural content on virtually every media platform.
“How does one begin to adequately describe Tyler Perry?” T. Howard Foundation CEO Jo Pamphile asked. “He is a playwright, screenwriter, producer, author, songwriter, actor and philanthropist.
“However, given the challenges of his childhood, you could add overcomer to the list,” Pamphile said. “You put all of this together and you have a success story that also serves as an inspiration to any young person or college student of color who dreams of seeing his or her writings come to life.”
A product of a physically abusive home, Perry hit it big in the mid-to-late 1990s with his traveling stage play, I Know I’ve Been Changed.
Perry parlayed his stage success into a decade-long run of successful theatrical releases, beginning in 2005 with Diary of a Mad Black Woman.
Over the 10 years that followed, the prolific Perry would direct 15 films grossing more than $743 million in box-office revenue, according to Box Office Mojo, including several films featuring Perry’s infamously tough-but-funny character Madea, who Perry plays in drag.
Other films such as Why Did I Get Married?, The Family That Preys and Good Deeds all feature Perry’s signature of dramatic, emotional and often spiritual story lines aimed mostly at women in general and African- American women in particular.
Perry would take his magic touch to television in 2006 with the debut of House of Payne, a comedy about a multi-generational family living under one roof. The comedy series debuted to a then-cable record 5.2 million viewers.
Two other comedies, Meet the Browns and For Better or Worse, helped establish TBS’ rebrand as the “very funny” network and, more importantly, demonstrated that sitcoms featuring people of color in lead roles could attract mainstream audiences.
Perry also showed he could succeed in more serious fare with the 2013 debut of serial drama The Haves and the Have Nots. The first Perry-produced drama series was part of an exclusive multiyear partnership with OWN and Oprah Winfrey reached in 2012.
The series, about the tensions between the African-American family of a maid and the wealthy white family she serves, holds the record as the most-watched show in OWN’s history, drawing 3.6 million viewers for its March 11, 2014, episode.
The series’ season-three debut this past January also drew an OWN series premiere record of 3.22 million viewers.
“Oprah Winfrey’s partnership with Tyler Perry has been a tremendous success, garnering millions of viewers for OWN and setting ratings records,” OWN president Erik Logan said during the network’s February announcement of additional episodes for Perry’s The Haves and the Have Nots, as well as drama series If Loving You Is Wrong; Love Thy Neighbor and For Better Or Worse.
“Tyler’s original series have quickly become appointment viewing for a passionate audience,” Logan added.
In a 2012 interview with CBS This Morning, Perry said his goal with his original projects is to inspire others through the media.
“I celebrate simplicity,” Perry said. “I celebrate where we come from, and … we’re all in need of something so simple. We all want to know how to forgive. We all want to know how to love. We all want to know how to laugh. And that simplicity, I think, is what has resonated with so many people around the world.”