BET’s gamble on ‘The Game’ wins big ratings and respect

OPINION - When we last left our motley crew of fictitious NFL footballers and the women who love them, they had been unceremoniously kicked to the curb by The CW...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

When we last left our motley crew of fictitious NFL footballers and the women who love them, they had been unceremoniously kicked to the curb by The CW. The network claimed they were moving to a long-form drama format in which The Game wouldn’t fit — no doubt coincidentally, it being the last “black” show on the channel. Fans launched an impressive online campaign to save the series, and creator Mara Brock Akil even changed the show to a drama-filled hour to fit in with The CW’s new format. But no dice — by 2009 the show was off the air, the characters seemingly left in syndication purgatory forever.

However an unlikely rescuer came in the form of BET. The network swooped in shortly after it was canceled by The CW, promising the show would go on, and leaving die hard fans both relieved and worried. It was great to know that our favorite show was going to hang around for a few more episodes, but BET? Not exactly the shining emblem of quality TV.

Lucky for BET, their big gamble paid off. After promoting the show for what felt like years, a record 7.7 million viewers tuned in for the Tuesday premiere. That’s BET’s second-biggest audience ever, behind only the 2009 BET Awards. It also set a record as the biggest ad-supported scripted series premier in cable history.

Take these numbers into consideration with The Game’s average audience on The CW, around 2 million, and the jump is even more notable. In a period of two years the series found another 5 million viewers, pointing to one very obvious fact — black America is starved for good TV.

Currently TBS hold the monopoly on black scripted TV. There are Tyler Perry’s two series, and Ice Cube has added his own scripted show (Are We There Yet?) to the line-up. But what’s lacking, and what nearly 8 million Americans are apparently craving, is the portrait of successful, wealthy people of color.

Fortunately this is where Mara Brock Akil excels. She’s an expert at scripting characters for an aspirational audience of black folk. People who faithfully watched shows like Sex and The City, pining after the designer shoes and handbags, but always wondering — where’s the black people?

With The Game Akil created a world where black people could be rich, fabulous and successful, but still “kept it real” — an image that BET coveted, but up until now couldn’t exactly pull off. Their reputation had long been tarnished by such shows as BET Uncut and Hot Ghetto Mess, and most of educated black America wouldn’t come near the network with a ten-foot pole.

The Game gives BET a chance at the audience they lost nearly ten years ago with the cancellation of shows like Teen Summit. Betting on a series with a built-in audience has been an obvious success thus far, but can they keep the passionate fan base around for a full season?

The first episode has definitely garnered mixed reviews. Though happy to see the show on the air, many felt that the characters had become way too serious. It’s true, the formerly laugh-filled series picks up with its characters two years later in some very dark places. There’s a paternity test, infidelity, lying and raucous reality stars all packed into 42 minutes. It was difficult to see so much drama in the first episode — loyal fans certainly would have liked to imagine simpler storylines for our protagonists, at least for the first episode. Something like a friendly family reunion would have felt better than finding out our favorite characters have been living in dysfunction for the past two years we missed them on-screen.

However, save for putting the cast on a surfboard soaring over a great white shark, fans are certain to hang around and bask in the image of successful black show on TV. With such a shortage of positive imagery, The Game has made BET the surprising forerunner in educated black entertainment.