LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Big ratings for the premiere episodes of BET sitcoms "The Game" and "Let's Stay Together" suggest the network could be the latest to bridge the audience gap between cable and broadcast.
BET's first new episode of "The Game," a CW sitcom picked up by BET after its cancellation in 2009, premiered Tuesday night to 7.7 million total viewers, according to Nielsen figures provided by BET, enough to make it the highest-rated show in BET history and one of the most-watched original series premieres ever on cable. Companion series "Let's Stay Together" also debuted strong, holding onto more than 57% of its lead-in from "The Game," with 4.4 million total viewers.
BET's overnight numbers for "The Game" are big enough to make it competitive with established broadcast sitcoms. NBC's Thursday-night comedy "30 Rock," for example, is averaging 6.6 million viewers this season in its fifth season, while ABC's Wednesday sitcom "Cougar Town" regularly attracts 7.2 million total viewers a week, according to Nielsen.
BET CEO Debra Lee told Ad Age that developing original scripted programming has been a goal of hers since taking the reins of the network five years ago.
"It's so great to hear from a community that feels they're being overlooked by the major networks," Ms. Lee said, referring to the comparative lack of African American-targeted sitcoms on prime-time broadcast TV. "These two shows are the first big step in a new direction for us, and their success proves the case that if we give the audience what they want and promote it well, they will show up."
At press time, Nielsen was still tabulating final figures for BET's Tuesday night ratings among adults 18 to 49 and 18 to 34, the two most important demographic groups to advertisers.
The new shows were at the center of a major branding and promotional push by the network's marketing chief Janet Rollé, who told Ad Age last October that the considerable built-in following for a show like "The Game" was a major advantage going into the show's re-launch.
'"The Game,' for example, already has 2.4 million fans on Facebook from its previous seasons, and we would rather try and engage that audience than try to replace that ourselves," Ms. Rollé said then. "That fan base has more power than I can have as a marketer; we want to see how we can have them join in our conversation."
By Wednesday, the Facebook page for "The Game" had 3.4 million fans.
The newfound success of "The Game" on cable, even if ratings decline from the height of the premiere, is also significant because the series attracted an average of 1.8 million weekly viewers during its last season on The CW. Like TNT's pick-up of NBC's "Southland" and Comedy Central's resurrection of Fox comedy "Futurama" last summer, cable has increasingly become a second home to broadcast rejects, albeit with varying results. "Southland" is still a ratings challenge for TNT, premiering to a cable audience of 2.5 million total viewers last spring, while "Futurama" became Comedy Central's highest-rated program of the year when the sixth season debuted to 2.9 million viewers last June.
Other cable shows that continue to compete with broadcast? MTV's "Jersey Shore," which last week returned for its third season to a record 8.5 million viewers; TNT's "The Closer" and "Rizzoli & Isles"; USA's "Burn Notice"; AMC's "The Walking Dead" and TV Land's "Hot In Cleveland."
Martha Stewart's block of programming on Lifetime has struggled; Oprah Winfrey's new cable channel, OWN, just debuted this month.
BET is part of Viacom, which also owns MTV, Nickelodeon, Spike and Comedy Central.