Is ‘The Game’ a game-changer?

Massive ratings on BET might not have ripple effect

One of the biggest TV stories of January wasn’t dedicated to the new judging panel on “American Idol,” the Comcast-NBC merger or even the wildly popular NFL playoffs. Rather, it was the re-emergence of a formerly middling sitcom that shook the cable world.

BET’s Jan. 11 premiere of “The Game” drew a whopping 7.6 million viewers — more than numerous broadcast laffers — making it among the most-watched comedies in basic-cable history. While the news provoked a lot of head-turning in network exec suites, it’s difficult to gauge the long-range implications of the show’s newfound success

“The Game,” about a group of African-American women who have relationships with football players, ran for three seasons (2006-09) on the CW but was canceled after averaging 1.8 million viewers in its final year. The Viacom-owned BET saw the series, whose repeats it airs anyway, as a natural fit for a relaunch — and the net knew exactly how to reach its target aud.

Or at least Janet Rolle, chief marketing officer of BET, hoped so.

“We wanted to re-engage the pre-existing fan base rather than re-create that ourselves,” Rolle says.

She adds that social media played a major role in bringing back fans of the show who otherwise might have simply forgotten about the skein, citing a female fan’s Facebook page, created when the show was on the ratings bubble at CW, that had attracted 3 million visitors.

But in order for the skein, produced by CBS Television Studios, to succeed two years after being pulled off the air, it had to reach more viewers than just the ones who had watched on CW. Rolle says one key audience driver was promoting the show on last year’s BET Awards — the network’s most-watched program prior to “The Game” launch — as well as several ad placements in black-oriented publications, such as Jet magazine. A programming marathon of three seasons of “The Game” helped too.

“In order to get an audience of this size, we definitely captured less-frequent viewers to the network,” Rolle explains. “It was important to have off-channel tactics in place, and I’ve heard from people who didn’t originally watch on CW what drove them to engage in the show was the marathon.”

Broadcast series often have made efforts to try to keep their casts ethnically diverse in order to appease a wide range of viewers. Think of some of the most popular and widely buzzed about skeins (reality or scripted) of the past decade — “Lost,” “American Idol” and “Glee” — and each has a mix of ethnicities.

NBC made a bold move last fall by casting two black leads for its J.J. Abrams-exec produced drama “Undercovers.” Both Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw were relative unknowns to U.S. auds and generally received favorable reviews, certainly better notices than the series itself. The show was canceled by NBC after only a few months.

However, in looking at the 18-49 demo, the show scored a 3.9 rating with black auds and a 1.7 with overall auds. Translation: “Undercovers” was more than twice as big in black homes as it was in the general population.

Chris Smith, a professor of communications at the Annenberg School at USC, says even with those stats, and the impressive performance of “The Game,” there won’t be a sudden increase in minority-themed programming on the broadcast side.

“I don’t see these type of shows going mainstream,” Smith says. “It’s kind of relegated to BET and the Tyler Perry block on cable.”

Adds Rolle: “The network model is completely different from cable. Their shows have to appeal to a broad audience.”

TBS fares well with its black-themed shows. In the week in which “The Game” broke records and where 6.6 million of the 7.6 million who tuned in were African-American, Perry’s “House of Payne” was the second-most-watched scripted show among a black aud — of the 3.1 million who tuned in on Jan. 10, 2.6 million were black. The Turner net also skeds Perry’s “Meet the Browns” and movie-turned-series “Are We There Yet?”

While even a stellar debut like “The Game” won’t immediately have production execs greenlighting minority-themed shows, what it might do is to make those execs more open to minority writers looking to sell ideas.

“I do think it could help black creatives going into a pitch meeting gain some traction,” Smith says. “The numbers of ‘The Game’ give them more ammunition to make that argument.”

Smith says that the success of the relaunched “Game” shouldn’t be too surprising because there was a large pent-up demand among black audiences to see themselves represented as they really are — not as gangsters, the homeless or hired help.

He says that while white TV execs might have done a double-take when the ratings came in, black TV followers who understand the power of a large minority viewing audience weren’t taken as off guard as others.

“It’s sort of like the story of race in America,” says Smith, recalling the divisiveness of the races during the first O.J. Simpson murder trial. “The only time blacks and white have been equally shocked was by Obama winning the presidency.”