Entertainment A-List

Entertainment A-List No. 9: BET

Thanks to Social Media, Network Tapped Fans Mourning Loss of 'The Game' to Make it No. 1 Sitcom on Cable

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Debra Lee
Debra Lee Credit: Illustration: Dieter Braun

The year's breakout sitcom is not "$#*! My Dad Says" or "Raising Hope." It's BET's "The Game," which isn't even a new show. The series, about a group of women in relationships with pro football players, started life on the CW but was canceled after three seasons.

BET then acquired the show after a huge fan following mourned its cancellation -- and a subsequent outpouring of social-media activism. The show's fan page had more than 1.4 million fans by the time BET was prepping its relaunch campaign. By tapping into Twitter and Facebook to get the word out about the show's return, BET lured more than 7 million viewers to tune in to the show's premiere -- a record for a cable sitcom and a new milestone in bridging the broadcast-cable divide.

"To have 'The Game' become the No. 1 ad-supported sitcom in cable is incredible," CEO Debra Lee said recently of its success. "When the show was canceled on CW, we wanted to do it, and we began negotiations with CBS productions, and we convinced them it was the right thing to do."

But BET's production savvy came into full view during the two-year gap between the moment it picked up the show and started airing new episodes. The cabler decided to work with a fan-created Facebook page, feeding news items, to maintain devotion to the show, and according to Ms. Lee, "it worked beyond our wildest dreams. And the show pretty much picked up where it left off."

Original scripted series such as "The Game" are becoming a regular part of the BET's lineup, which now includes "Let's Stay Together." And BET's value is crucial to the parent Viacom's bottom line. Within the media conglomerate's TV networks stable, which also includes MTV and Nickelodeon, Viacom's TV dollars grew 11% this second quarter to $2 billion, and ad revenue at cable networks jumped 12% in the same period. BET, a key part of that performance, is already fairly saturated in the market, present in 90 million households. One unique part of the company's success is , of course, its audience, which holds BET to a higher standard.

"Our audience is really passionate about BET," said Ms. Lee, a Harvard-trained lawyer who started her career at BET in the 1980s, eventually rising to become its chief executive. "They feel like they own BET, and they're unhappy about the images they see on other networks or the lack of images. When they come to us they want us to reflect them -- they don't want it to be monolithic or unreal."

'The Game'
'The Game'

That is , characters, as opposed to black characters -- a perennial issue in Hollywood's image-making machine, and yet some advertisers have already looked beyond that debate.

"We think BET competes in the general movie-going area," said Stefanie Napoli, exec VP at Sony Pictures, who recently worked with the cabler on promotions for "Jumping the Broom." Ms. Napoli views BET's audience as part of the mainstream viewership but also recognizes the added value of advertising on that network. "BET has a lot of credibility with their audience, and we want to get in front of them," she said. "It's a great brand."

For her part, Ms. Lee originally saw the viewer's custodial sense of the brand as a burden, wondering why they couldn't simply put on programming as they saw fit, but "eventually, we just embraced it. This is what they want, let's give that to them."

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