SVP of Programming & Development, Oprah Winfrey Network
By Emily Oliveira AB '18
Jill Dickerson AB '91 is the SVP of Programming and Development at OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. Since joining the network in 2009, she has overseen programs including but certainly not limited to Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s and For Peete’s Sake. She began her industry career as a story editor on MTV’s The Real World: Hawaii and later worked as consulting producer and head writer on subsequent seasons of the show. Her producing career spans reality programming on TLC, VH-1, and ABC’s The Bachelorette, among others.
When I spoke with Jill on the phone, she had evacuated her home less than three days prior due to the fires burning in Los Angeles County at the time. When she first moved out to L.A. in 1998, Jill felt a relatable amount of pressure to justify decisions like studying Social Anthropology at Harvard, watching soap operas, or even attending Harvard to “just” work in television. Still, Jill—who grew up on a college campus—had the blessing of her mother, a college dean, to “do what she loved, and the money would come.”
Jill’s experience working on MTV’s The Real World emerged from a letter she wrote to the producers about her great interest in the show, which brought a diverse group of young people together to live together in close quarters, shedding light on contemporary issues relevant to the lives of young adults. The producers happened to be in New York City at the time, and when her letter led to a conversation, Jill jumped at the opportunity to be vulnerable and let her passion carry her “to the next step.”
In that interview, Jill recounts, “who I was mattered”: her passion for “stories, American, women, and people with different experiences,” to name a few, was more important that the fact that “she didn’t know how to story edit,” which she readily admitted on the spot. As she has learned, the “best opportunities [didn’t] come from jobs that were ever listed,” but rather from reaching out to people whose work she aspired to.
Real World is an experimental show that, after a point, led to the evolution of television in which non-celebrity, or ‘real-world’, participants increasingly delivered performances. Before Real World, shows like Survivor, Shark Tank, American Idol, and The Voice didn’t yet exist, though many of these shows tended towards or belong to a “lifestyle fantasy” category of reality TV. Unscripted shows such as Cops were already on the scene, but shows featuring people who lived outside of the public eye in soap storytelling formats were not.
Bringing Real World into its final aired state involved bringing narrative structure out of many, many hours of footage. Jill’s “work in a genre that was evolving” also changed her perception of what it meant to have an industry network. Initially resistant to having “cocktail conversations,” early-career Jill figured there would be a tipping point at which she was no longer paying her dues in Hollywood. Ultimately, though, she advised me, a recent graduate, that the most important aspect of a network is the relationships developed along the way through real “connection, not just opportunities.”
As the SVP of Programming & Development at OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, Jill stepped into a role that operated within an established brand that, between a talk show, radio program, and magazine, reached many different audiences of primarily women. Part of her work involves taking a closer look at “who shows up on different nights” and really considering “why [they’re] telling a story” at any given time. Her work is motivated by “better serving the people who are watching” their content and conveying story in a way that creates empathy in viewers, which starts by aligning her team’s intentionality behind the story with that of producers. Jill’s early work for an African-American documentarian “making films about the black experience” was simply one foundation behind telling stories on OWN about black marriage and the “hard work required to make it work.”
At Harvard, Jill lived in Dunster House. She remembers appreciating walking through the beauty of the campus architecture itself. Her freshman seminar on painting was but one example of a class whose passionate professor encouraged her to see the “areas of connection between every class she took.”
Jill describes her 25th reunion experience as being “seen as a person striving by people who were young with [her],” in the sense that her peers were celebrating milestone accomplishments through the lens of appreciating the challenges presented by human life in general. Her graduate studies in ethnographic film at NYU were similarly important in the conversations they sparked about representing cultures apart from your own, especially in unscripted content—particularly in a way that empowers them. In speaking with Jill, I appreciated and will remember her natural tendency to draw a narrative, and in turn draw meaning and grounded advice, out of her own experiences.