BET puts sitcom back in ‘The Game’

Canceled CW skein gets new life on new net

A new chapter in the 30-year history of BET began in Atlanta this week as lensing rolled on “The Game,” the former CW sitcom that was resurrected by popular demand of BET’s African-American aud.

BET is banking on “The Game” to anchor a scripted programming block that the cabler will launch on Jan. 11. Bowing in tandem with “Game” in the 10-11 p.m. timeslot is “Let’s Stay Together,” a laffer revolving around a newly engaged couple’s efforts to balance their relationship with demanding careers (she’s a pediatrician, he’s a contractor).

Both laffers represent a concerted effort by the cabler to broaden its programming mix and draw the premium coin from advertisers that high-end scripted series command. “Game’s” return to original production, 18 months after CW canceled it, is akin to the resurrection of “Family Guy” after its rerun segs did boffo biz for TBS and Adult Swim. The outcry from “Game” fans after the show was axed persuaded BET execs that there was a market opportunity for the cabler just waiting to be had.

“This is the beginning of building what scripted programming means to BET,” said Charlie Jordan Brookins, BET’s senior veep of original programming. “We plan to put quality first and tell stories that have rich characters that are relevant to our audience.”

BET has a number of drama projects in the development pipeline, but it opted to start with comedies in part because half-hours can get up and running faster — and the African-American comedy aud is underserved by most of the major broadcast and cable nets.

Most of all, the availability of “Game,” which revolves around the wives and girlfriends of players for a fictional NFL team in San Diego, gave BET a built-in advantage with a well-known property.

CW dropped “Game” along with other comedies in spring 2009 as it made the strategic shift to an all-drama, Monday-Friday lineup. Even before the cancelation became official, BET execs approached “Game” producer CBS TV Studios about the possibility of picking up the show for firstrun segs.

BET has carried reruns of “Game’s” three seasons on CW since February 2009, and those reruns have, in some instances, drawn higher numbers on BET than the originals did on CW. “Game” now ranks as the most-watched off-net series in BET’s history, hitting a high-water mark last October when the rerun of its third season finale seg drew 2 million viewers. In its final season on CW, “Game” averaged about 1.8 million viewers.

At first, there were doubts about whether the show’s production budget could be downscaled to fit the cable model. But with the will of “Game” cast members and married exec producer-showrunners Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, they found the way. For starters, there were cost savings and production tax incentives to be gained by relocating the show from L.A. to Atlanta, where production began Monday at the EUE/Screen Gems studio facility.

“Everyone on our team wants to just shock everybody and make it even better than it was on the CW,” said Brock Akil. “How do you do that with less money? You have to be more creative. There’s definitely a bigger rock to push up the hill, but we want it to be a huge success not only for us but for the network. We would love be part of the history of putting BET on the map with original programming in a serious way.”

The luxury of targeting a niche market on cable rather than a broader aud for a broadcast net makes “Game” well positioned to score for BET in a way that it could not on CW. Because of the strong potential for the show to have a long run on BET, “Game’s” core cast members, including Tia Mowry and Pooch Hall, were eager to return to the show, as were most members of the writing staff. Even those who had moved on to other jobs were quick to reach out with offers to write a freelance script or two.

“They just wanted to be a part of (the relaunch) in some way,” Brock Akil said.

Salim Akil noted that a fringe benefit of moving to Atlanta is that the show’s cast and crew members have been embraced as superstars by the locals. “They love the fact that the cast is here,” said Akil, who is overseeing the lensing in Atlanta while Brock Akil runs the writers room in L.A.

Moreover, BET is missing no opportunity to showcase “Game” thesps on the network’s special events, such as its upcoming Hip-Hop Awards telecast and June’s BET Awards kudocast. It all adds up to a level of attention that “Game” never received from its original net. Brock Akil emphasizes that they were grateful that the CW and its programming chief, Dawn Ostroff, gave them the opportunity to launch “Game” (which was a spinoff of Brock Akil’s long-running UPN/CW laffer “Girlfriends”), but there is little doubt “Game” will get extra TLC from BET.

“What we never had before was the marketing component to support the show. We just didn’t get that attention on CW,” Brock Akil said. “Now that we’re on BET, they know what they have and they want us to help grow their audience. That’s exciting for us.”

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