Where were you when you heard about the 7.7?
Ask anyone involved with BET’s comedy “The Game,” and they will recall every glorious detail.
That’s because the number refers to the 7.7 million viewers who tuned in for the fourth-season premiere after the show switched networks from the CW to BET in 2011 — an enormous number that made it the most-watched sitcom premiere in cable TV history. Jaws dropped throughout the TV industry. Tyler Perry sent flowers.
Ratings would never reach that number again, but it was still a huge victory for the “The Game,” an occasionally overlooked series about pro football players and their loved ones. The show ultimately ran for nine seasons and 147 episodes total, an impressive run that contributed to ending the drought of African American TV comedies at the time.
Now, the upcoming series finale (Aug. 5) marks a bittersweet moment for everyone involved with the groundbreaking show, which made Washington, D.C.-headquartered BET network a player in the scripted TV programming world. The series, featuring bold, brash characters and intertwining story lines that balanced comedy and drama, helped pave the way for current broadcast hits such as “Empire” and “Black-ish,” executives say. Then there was the 7.7 million, confirmation that an audience would show up.
“It felt,” said BET president and chief executive Debra Lee, as she remembered getting the news of the show’s giant debut, “like winning the Super Bowl.”
In 2006, executive producer and creator Mara Brock Akil was deep into her UPN comedy “Girlfriends” when she had an idea for a new show. She pitched the concept to UPN president Dawn Ostroff: a series centered on the wives, girlfriends and mothers of professional athletes. As a cost- effective bonus, she could incorporate it into an episode of “Girlfriends.” (This is known as a backdoor pilot.) Ostroff agreed and Akil was thrilled.
“We were having such great success with ‘Girlfriends,’ ” Akil said. “But it wasn’t always easy getting a show about people of color on, especially back then.”
Called “The Game,” the series debuted in October 2006 as one of the first programs on the new CW network, a merger of UPN and the WB. Starring Tia Mowry, Pooch Hall and Wendy Raquel Robinson, the show began as a young woman named Melanie (Mowry) postponed starting medical school at John Hopkins to follow her boyfriend, Derwin (Hall), as he launched his pro football career with the fictional San Diego Sabers. Soon, Melanie’s world was populated with others including Tasha (Robinson), the mother of the Sabers’ quarterback; and Kelly (Brittany Daniel), wife of the team’s wide receiver, as they went through the ups and downs of life in the spotlight.
The show lasted three seasons before CW decided to take the fledgling channel in a different direction, meaning more hour-long dramedies such as “Gossip Girl.” It was a blow to the cast and crew, particularly because the series had found its groove. Fans were furious in early 2009 when the network canceled both “The Game” and Chris Rock’s autobiographical “Everybody Hates Chris” — with a few notable exceptions, there had been a lack of sitcoms with black leads since the 1980s.
It wasn’t long until BET took action: The network, looking to make a splash with original, scripted programming, was already showing reruns of “The Game.” Executive producer Kenny Smith said he believes the repeats made the show’s original episodes tick up in the ratings, as viewers slowly got hooked when BET showed marathons. “It was binge-watching before we had the term binge-watching,” Smith said.
Knowing there was an audience, Lee entered into negotiations to pick up the show. During the lag time, devoted fans rallied on social media, proving that there were eager viewers waiting. Lee says this was a motivating factor in bringing the show to her network. Nearly two years later, the move paid off in a big way, as “The Game” debuted in January 2011 to its historic number.
“We didn’t put a lot into marketing,” Lee said, crediting the huge fanbase on Facebook for spreading the word. “We spent what we had, [but that] wasn’t enough to get 7.7 million viewers on its own.”
The move to BET was fortuitous, but it came with challenges. Production relocated from Los Angeles to Atlanta to take advantage of Georgia’s tax incentives. However, the writers stayed in California, which made things difficult since writers are usually on the set of sitcoms to punch up jokes during filming. The show evolved from a multi-camera sitcom to a single-camera dramatic comedy without a laugh track or a live audience. That meant longer hours and shooting multiple episodes each week.
Mowry recalls the positive feedback she received for her role as Melanie. (She and Hall left the show after Season 5; they will both return for the series finale.) Fans were fairly obsessed with Melanie and Derwin’s journey early on. In an unusual move, the writers decided to tear apart the couple at the end of the first season when Derwin cheated on Melanie.
Mowry laughs when she remembers her and Hall’s reaction when they found out the writers were splitting them up so soon: “Noooo!” However, the couple worked through their problems and eventually wound up married.
“Through the course of playing Melanie, some people would love her, some would hate her, some would judge her,” Mowry said. “But I think they connected with her — they enjoyed her vulnerability, they enjoyed relating to her. . . . It’s refreshing to see a couple that’s not perfect on television, a couple that works through trials and tribulations.”
“The Game” eventually settled to average about 3 million viewers per episode, a far cry from 7.7 million, but a great number in the land of cable. The show has been the No. 1 scripted cable sitcom among adults 18-49 (the coveted advertiser demographic) for the past five years.
After the fourth-season debut on BET, Akil remembers taking many meetings around Hollywood, with executives asking “What is going on? What did we not see? What are we missing?” She and her husband, Salim Akil (also an executive producer on “The Game”), signed an overall deal with BET and eventually created the successful “Being Mary Jane,” the network’s first drama. BET continued producing scripted shows, from “Let’s Stay Together” to “Reed Between the Lines” to the upcoming “Zoe Moon,” starring Brandy Norwood, who joined “The Game” in Season 4.
As for what executives were missing, that’s becoming evident now as broadcast networks are seeing what happens when you diversify your line-up: African-American-led shows such as ABC’s “Black-ish” and Fox’s “Empire” racked up Emmy nominations this year and attracted major audiences. “Empire” became the first show in television history to increase ratings every week, ending its first season this spring with 21 million viewers.
Some credit success of “The Game” for setting the stage for shows such as “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” in proving that shows targeted to African American viewers can be mainstream hits. “A lot of people tell me that, that BET proved the case that this was a market more people should go after,” Lee said.
“People said, ‘Oh look, there’s success over in those hills, let’s go over there and try some of that.’ I do think we are seeing the reward,” Brock said. “I’m saying reward because there’s some good TV out there. Yes, there can be black leads on broadcast TV. And not only will it [work], it’s going to make television history for your network.”
By Emily Yahr/The Washington Post