Did you hear that? It is a collective sigh of relief from fans of the wildly popular television show The Game, which is returning to network television after a two-year absence. It was a sitcom that managed to be funny and thoughtful, provocative and insightful, hilarious and poignant — until it was unceremoniously canceled by the CW in 2008 after a three-year run. Disappointed viewers lobbied the network hard with an Internet and social-media campaign to bring back the sitcom, signing up more than 2 million Facebook fans — all to no avail. The Game had been dumped.
But ever since The Game was canceled, Mara Brock-Akil, the show's executive producer and creator, has been working diligently to bring the sitcom back to television. And now Black Entertainment Television, which had been airing reruns of the show, has agreed to pick up its original programming next January. The original cast (Tia Mowry, Pooch Hall, Coby Bell, Hosea, Hosea Sanchez, Rick Fox, Wendy Racquel Robinson) and director Salim Akil will also be returning to the show, which will pick up two years after the story lines left off. (The show is centered around the personal and professional lives of pro football players on the fictional San Diego Sabres team.)
Does this mean that The Game has found a permanent home? According to Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, ratings that may not be good enough to keep a show on-air on a mainstream network like the CW would qualify as great numbers at a cable network like BET. "With a show like The Game, many people will see the show for the first time. If they can get the numbers that they got on the CW, by basic-cable standards, that will be a hit show," says Thompson.
Fans were shocked when the show was canceled; after all, it had a large fan following on social-media outlets and in the blogosphere. According to Nielsen data, The Game had 2.3 million viewers during its first season and 2.5 million during its second, dropping to 1.75 million viewers during the last season. Fans complained of shifting days and time slots, which made it difficult to find the show.
After the cancellation, The Game made its way into syndication on BET, creating a newer audience than the show had at the CW. A combination of factors led to the show's return, Brock-Akil tells The Root. First, outraged fans staged a boycott of the CW, which brought renewed attention to the show. Meanwhile, BET started to run the show in syndication, which, she says, "gave people something to hold on to. More importantly, it allowed us to gain a new audience that we did not have at CW. BET's audience in syndication was better than CW's audience when the show was actually on the air." BET did not respond to repeated interview requests from The Root.
Fans played a major role in helping to get the show back on the air, which is compelling because black audiences are often undervalued in the mainstream-media marketplace, even in the face of our increasing numbers and spending power.
According to the recent study African Americans Revealed, "African Americans accounted for a 10 percent increase in population from 2008 as opposed to 2000, while African-American buying power increased more than 55 percent during the same period to $913 billion. By the year 2013, black buying power will reach $1.2 trillion, a 35 percent increase versus 2008." It has been proved over and over again that black spending habits influence technological and media trends — like Twitter — not to mention that black audiences watch more television than any other consumer group.
The Akils have been working together to produce quality television shows through their production company, Akil Productions, and recognize the precarious position of black shows on mainstream networks. That is why, they say, they are happy to be on BET. "The fans had an appetite for the show, and I think BET recognized how popular it was in reruns on the network, and appreciated how we told stories and balanced the shows with the different types of African Americans. They called and wanted us. It feels good to be wanted," Salim Akil tells The Root.
Brock-Akil says that she is convinced BET will properly market the show. "Networks make the mistake of believing that audiences will find shows. People are busy. They're not sitting around waiting on television. They need reminders about when a show is on, just like they need reminders about other things."
BET, a network that has been largely criticized for its lack of original programming, recently began branching out into scripted television shows such as Let's Stay Together, a series founded by Queen Latifah. Now it's stepping up its game by making The Game its most recent scripted television show. The Game's proven audience was clearly a factor, but the show's ability to tell stories that are truthful and "in your face," without being exploitive, is also key to the success of the show. "We respect black audiences and black characters," Akil says. "We show the spectrum of black life without putting it down. We don't judge or make fun of the characters on the show. We talk about things that are on the viewers' minds, without talking down to them."
BET's decision to bring The Game back to broadcast television is not unusual, according to Thompson. "Original programming is becoming the industry standard for cable operators. Look at what Mad Men has done for AMC, Hot in Cleveland for TV Land, South Park for Comedy Central or Trading Spaces for TLC," he says. "It only takes one or two hits to make the show and network matter."
That is what black audiences want: shows that matter. The combination of good storytelling, respect for African-American audiences and characters, and a huge following have brought back a show that satisfied millions of African-American viewers, which puts some pressure on the Akils. Brock-Akil adds, "The fans are a blessing. We are appreciative of what we had, but grateful for the opportunity to prove everyone wrong about the ability of this show to succeed."
The Akils know something about success. Married for 11 years, they are expanding the company by delving into reality television, an hourlong show and another half-hour offering. "We're going to take a swing at some new programming, and hopefully something will hit," says Brock-Akil.
Nsenga K. Burton is editor-at-large and a regular contributor to The Root. She recently completed the film Four Acts, a documentary on the 2007 public servants' strike in South Africa.