BET’s Got Game

January 11, 2011
By | 6 Comments

Tonight, The Game, a sitcom originally produced for and aired on The CW, premieres its fourth season on its new home, BET.  The story behind that move leaves me wondering about the future of “diversity” (whatever that might mean) on broadcast television.

The Game is a sitcom with a predominantly African American cast set in the world of a fictional professional football team.  When it premiered in 2006, it was paired up with Everybody Hates Chris, All of Us, and Girlfriends to develop a night of programming obviously intended to target African American viewers.  In a move reminiscent of Fox’s recruitment and then abandonment of the same audience once it had built itself into a competitor for the Big 3 broadcasters, The CW slowly but surely canceled each of these series, with The Game and Everybody Hates Chris the last ones standing when the ax fell in May of 2009.

The series did not go quietly–the stars put together a YouTube video encouraging fans to help them save the show, and the outraged fans were happy to comply, mounting a sizable internet protest,

For a while, things were looking grim. The 2009-2010 TV season came and went without any promising news, but the story of The Game was not yet over.  Although ratings were steadily dropping off at The CW, when BET began airing reruns of the series in February of 2009, they drew huge audiences–often garnering higher ratings in the BET re-airing than they did in the original showing on The CW, according to Daily Variety.  The reruns did so well for BET that the channel picked the series up in October 2010 and began shooting new episodes over a year after its original cancellation.

In some ways, The Game‘s move from The CW to BET makes institutional sense.  When the announcement about the syndication deal was made in February 2009, Daily Variety quoted BET’s VP of acquisitions: “Not only does it have really fresh African-American stars, but it has a great lineup of guest stars. People like Robin Givens and Vivica Fox — these are people who are regularly on our network.”  And there’s certainly no denying that a sitcom with a predominantly black cast can and likely will find a very happy home on BET, given its programming slate and audience profile.  In fact, the series might indeed do much better on BET than it ever did on The CW–which may well be due to the fact that The Game was not a priority for The CW, but will be a flagship series for BET.  For the series and its fans, this is certainly the best possible outcome.

But I’m not so sure The Game‘s happy ending is all that happy–or if it signals a dangerous shift in programming logic.  As The Root’s Erin E. Evans noted in 2009, “The recent cancellation of The Game and the also popular Everybody Hates Chris has drastically reduced the number of black faces on network television.”  She goes on to say that even if the series were resurrected on cable (as it now has been), it might set a dangerous precedent–and I think she’s right.  Do we really want to say that cable is the proper home for stories about non-white experiences and characters?  That broadcast audiences simply aren’t interested, and thus shouldn’t be offered these stories?  That audiences who find their own lives represented in series like The Game can find solace on cable?  That “broadcast” means “mainstream”, and “mainstream” means “white”?

I’m not sure I know the answer to these questions, but I do know that the startling dearth of non-white casts on broadcast television is something to which we should be paying attention, even as we celebrate and enjoy The Game’s second life on cable.

My heartfelt thanks and appreciation to two of my outstanding students, Kiara Sims and Ayriel Warren, for their superb projects on The Game last fall–I wouldn’t have been aware of this interesting and troubling situation otherwise.
Edited to add: please be sure to check out this Variety piece an this post from Aymar Jean Christian on the topic, now that the ratings results are in.


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6 Responses to “ BET’s Got Game

  1. David Resha on January 11, 2011 at 3:29 PM

    Erin– I wonder what the dangerous shift in programming logic is here. Isn’t it the same logic that cancels any underperforming show? Or are you saying that there used to be a logic that once sacrificed ratings for diversity, and now that might be changing?

    • Erin Copple Smith on January 12, 2011 at 9:19 AM

      Perhaps my wording wasn’t as accurate as it could have been–what I mean is that if we are willing to accept that cable is the home for niche audiences, and that African Americans constitute a niche audience, we’re wading into dangerous territory. I certainly think, based on any standard one might apply (sheer numbers, purchase power, cultural power, etc.), black audiences are not “niche” or “specialty” audiences.

      Yes, The Game was underperforming on The CW (though it’s important to note that “underperforming” is not a huge step from “performing well” on that particular network)–but it seems to me that there are circumstances here under which the series could have succeeded on network TV, given the proper support and promotional power. This constant use and abuse of black audiences to build audience for fledgling networks, and abandonment once that function is filled, is troubling to me.

      And no–I don’t think any network ever sacrificed ratings for diversity. And I’m usually one who says, “Look, this is the game, this the way it’s played, let the chips fall.” But in this case, I think we’re wading into problematic waters with regards to what this move means not only for TV, but for audiences and society more broadly. I’m not necessarily saying, “Shame on you, CW”, but I am saying that there’s a dangerous precedent being set here that we should be paying attention to.

  2. Myles McNutt on January 11, 2011 at 5:22 PM

    Great piece, Erin.

    I think another consequence of this shift (outside of the absence of minorities on networks, which you rightly observe is growing more concerning by the season) is both the critical and media coverage of the series in its new home. As it stood, The CW was considered a lesser network, and its programming received far less coverage from both critics and journalists; now, with the move to BET, the series seems to have fallen even further into relative obscurity.

    I certainly think we could argue that this was a racial component, with BET not considered mainstream thanks to its intense focus on African American audiences, but I think there’s also an industrial component as well. BET isn’t just a cable network, it’s a cable network not known for original programming, and a network with programming that is quite far removed from any notion of quality.

    And thus, to sort of answer the question of “Why are TV Critics Ignoring The Game?” posted at Pop Scribblings (in reaction to a lack of critics tweeting during the panel focused on the show at the ongoing TCA Press Tour), I think it’s that the show is moving to a location which most TV critics (and most TV journalists) couldn’t find on their dial.

    And since The Game isn’t quite Conan O’Brien, and because BET isn’t quite as comfortable as TBS, I think the show’s shift has not only set a dangerous precedent but also fallen into a sort of industrial blind spot, one which I (like you) found myself in until relatively recently.

    Thanks for shedding some light!

  3. Myles McNutt on January 12, 2011 at 1:24 PM

    Just an update: The Game returned with 7.7 Million viewers, a number that I doubt anything on The CW has ever drawn.

  4. Kiara Sims on January 13, 2011 at 2:20 AM

    Excellent piece of work Ms. Erin Copple Smith!!! 🙂

  5. Tim Havens on January 13, 2011 at 11:53 AM

    This is a really fascinating piece, Erin, and a wonderful find! It raises what I think are really important questions for television and general, and I plan to use it in my TV and African American Culture course this semester.

    For me, this gets down to questions about what “the networks” are and what we expect them to/think they can do. I would tend to say, yes, prime-time broadcast always meant mainstream and mainstream always meant white 🙂 (middle-class, patriarchal, and heterosexist, too). Of course, there were eras, genres, and series that deviated from mainstream values, but they always needed to negotiate with the mainstream. But more than that was the “dream” of the network, that somehow diversity on TV would lead to diversity in the real world. Herman Gray has a nice chapter on this in Culture Moves, where he asks why so many African Americans are invested in the idea of the broadcast network. It may be time in media studies to critically examine how our own unrecognized investments in the dream of the netowrk might have influenced our theoretical perspecticves on TV.

    Another read of this, of course, is that BET FINALLY has a well-performing, scripted series on! I think it’ll be interesting to see how the changed industrial context for the series might lead to representational/ideological changes in the series.