Sometimes, what a television show needs is a new neighborhood.
“The Game,” a sitcom about pro football players’ relationships with women, puttered along in obscurity for three years on the CW network. The season it was canceled, it attracted only 1.9 million viewers an episode. Then it was resurrected with two new episodes last Tuesday on the cable channel BET, which picked up the program and resumed production as part of an effort to add scripted shows to its schedule. The response from BET viewers, Forbes said, was “jaw-dropping.” The first two episodes of the new season averaged 7.7 million viewers, making it the most-watched sitcom ever on cable television.
When the Nielsen ratings came in, there were hugs in the halls at BET. The 30-year-old channel had never had such high ratings for a series. “Just over the moon” is how Debra L. Lee, the chief executive and chairwoman of BET Networks, described her reaction. “It proves that cable is competitive,” she said.
How does a show quadruple its audience? Ms. Lee credits a smart marketing plan, fan bases on Facebook and Twitter, and frequent showings on BET of repeat episodes in the past year, which ginned up interest in the new episodes.
The channel’s target audience also mattered. Most of the stars of “The Game” are black, as are most of its viewers. In those ways, it differs from the other shows on the CW, which is best known for dramas like “Gossip Girl.” BET is programmed for black viewers.
“Folks know what to expect from BET all day long,” Ms. Lee said, praising the strength of the brand.
“The Game” had a higher rating on BET last Tuesday than it ever had on the CW even though, according to Nielsen, the CW normally has 60 percent more viewers in prime time, 1.9 million, than BET, 747,000.
In mid-2008, a viewer named Stacey Mattocks created a Facebook page for the show, and months later she became more active because of speculation that the CW might cancel “The Game.” She had been a fan of “Girlfriends,” the show that had spawned “The Game,” and had already been canceled. “I didn’t want to lose my other show,” Ms. Mattocks said.
But she did, briefly. With cancellation looming, an online campaign by the stars failed to persuade the CW to keep the program. Having tasted success with “Gossip Girl,” the network decided to stop showing sitcoms altogether. “The Game” ended in May of 2009.
Ms. Mattocks said she thought the CW had neglected the show, partly by moving it into less favorable time slots. The CW declined to comment.
In 2009, BET began playing old episodes of “The Game,” which was critical to its success later.
“A lot of fans had never heard of it until it was on cable,” Ms. Mattocks said. Her Facebook page continued to gain fans, so when BET ordered new episodes of the show last May, it embraced her page — with three million fans — instead of trying to create one from scratch. The channel now pays her to run the fan page part time, in addition to her job at an insurance company in Florida.
The show received traditional marketing, too. Teasers about the return of “The Game” started appearing on BET as early as last June, and later commercials depicted viewers celebrating its return. One such spot, filmed on the Georgia Tech campus, had the cast walking out of a stadium tunnel, surrounded by cheering fans.
“It helped to extend the message that we were doing this for them,” said Janet Rolle, BET’s chief marketing officer.
It almost certainly helped that BET had only one other scripted sitcom, “Let’s Stay Together,” to promote. The CW, like other broadcasters, has a fuller slate of shows. BET paired the two new sitcoms last Tuesday, and “Let’s Stay Together” averaged 4.4 million viewers.
“The Game” features the same stars as before. Keeping pace with the altered production, the story “picks up two years later,” Salim Akil, who is an executive producer alongside his wife, Mara Brock Akil, and Kelsey Grammer, told reporters this month. The time-shifting helps explain why the characters live in new homes now.Ms. Lee, who took over BET in 2005, had predicted that “The Game” could be “a game-changer” for the channel, which she has steered toward scripted and higher-quality programming.
“This is really the top of the mountain, in terms of what I’ve been trying to accomplish, and what I knew BET could do,” she said on Friday. She says that at a presentation for advertisers in the spring, she plans to announce another new sitcom.