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BET Raises Its Game

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There are series that get low ratings and get cancelled. There are series that get low ratings, are nurtured by their networks, and gradually get better ratings. There are series that get low ratings, then move to another network for which they’re a better fit, and where the low ratings are more acceptable. And then there are series that get low ratings, get cancelled, go to another network, and immediately out of the box get blockbuster ratings three times what they got on their previous network.

Wait, what? No, there aren’t. Not to my memory, at least—not until The Game debuted last night on BET and grabbed a mind-boggling 7.7 million viewers, at least thrice its average for any season it aired on The CW from 2006 to 2009.

The jump defies any single explanation. Family Guy, for instance, went off the air, became a cult hit on DVD and cable, and returned much bigger—but not by this factor and not this quick. Absence can made the hearts of a cancelled series grow fonder; but again, not usually this fond.

There’s also the fact that The Game, a spinoff of Girlfriends about football players and their significant others, is a mostly African American comedy-drama, a kind of show that has been harder to find on broadcast networks. (Especially since The CW, and its predecessors UPN and The CW, got out of the, well, game.)

BET is obviously a targeted network fit for an African American scripted show—but again, we’re talking about a show that anyone could have watched for three seasons, suddenly tripling its audience. No doubt a series like this is likely to get better promoted and scheduled at a cable network than it did at The CW, where it generally seemed shunted off to the side. But those numbers, out of reach for any but the hugest of basic-cable shows, suggest an underserved audience that some network would be smart to serve.

I never thought much of The Game as a series when it was on the air before—but then I would say much the same of a number of middle-of-the-road basic-cable shows (The Closer, Rizzoli and Isles) that nonetheless get giant ratings. As much as we critics focus on the Breaking Bads of the cable world—shows that broadcast can’t do—there’s also a big market for basic cable in making shows that broadcast networks could make, but for some reason don’t (see also Hot in Cleveland). Nice work of BET in spotting, and maximizing, an opportunity.