"The Game" used to be a loser.
In its three seasons on the CW, the comedy about women involved with players of a fictional San Diego pro football team had a devoted but small following. When producers offered to revamp the series to make it more compatible with the CW's long-form, youth-oriented direction, executives declined, eventually canceling "The Game" in 2009.
Less than two years later, "The Game" has turned into a winner with a fresh start on Black Entertainment Television, scoring record ratings in its debut that outdistanced the heavily promoted January premieres of several series, including FX's "Lights Out" and ABC's "Off the Map."
But more significantly, "The Game," which airs Tuesdays and features the original cast, including Tia Mowry Hardrict and Wendy Raquel Robinson, has been a game-changer for Black Entertainment Television. Since its launch in 1980, the urban-oriented network has been constantly shadowed by charges from critics of perpetuating negative images and falling short of the hopes that it would become an all-inclusive bellwether of contemporary African American culture.
BET executives now maintain that the success of "The Game" and its companion romantic comedy "Let's Stay Together" has ushered in a new era for the network, which used to rely primarily on music videos, reality shows and award ceremonies. The network plans to move more aggressively into developing scripted shows, launching at least two more series by the end of the year. More than eight series are in development.
"It's proved what we've been saying for years — that if we have the resources to produce quality programming, the audience will show up," said BET Networks Chairman and Chief Executive Debra L. Lee, who took control of BET in 2005 after succeeding founder Robert L. Johnson. "What we've done says so much to the industry and to our audience."
Lee was also pleased that the network had developed an efficient business model for the new shows, producing them in-house at BET's Atlanta studios and promoting them heavily to BET viewers through social media rather than buying billboards and ads in mainstream media.
Among the projects already planned for this year is a family comedy, "Reed Between the Lines," starring Tracee Ellis Ross ("Girlfriends") and Malcolm Jamal-Warner ("The Cosby Show), and a drama produced by Reggie Rock Bythewood ("New York Undercover").
Cable TV analyst Simon Applebaum said, "This truly signals that BET is now a player in scripted TV, and gives them the incentive to do more. And they accomplished this all without major advertisers. That's astonishing."
Ratings for the season premiere of "The Game" topped 7.7 million total viewers, making it the top-rated ad-supported sitcom broadcast in cable history. "Let's Stay Together," a romantic comedy developed by Queen Latifah's production company, scored 4.4 million viewers.
Loretha Jones, BET's president of Entertainment, said, "Not in our wildest dreams could we have expected this. But Debra had a vision that scripted shows was what our viewers wanted, and I knew from a strategic point of view that we needed to go in that direction."
Longtime observers of the network are impressed. Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University, said: "What BET has done is recognize explicitly who their audience is, which is 14-to-25-year-old urban youths. In terms of management decisions, they've made some great decisions over the last several years."
Some of the highest praise has come from the executive who canceled "The Game" on the CW.
"We were so happy for them," said Dawn Ostroff, president of entertainment for the CW, when asked about the show's resurgence. "The cast deserves it … and Debra Lee."
Times staff writer Yvonne Villareal contributed to this report.