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The following story appears in the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter. Current subscribers can read the story online.
On Jan. 12, Hollywood collectively gasped when ratings were released for the previous night’s series premiere on BET.
The show drew an extraordinary 7.7 million viewers. After the TV industry overcame its shock, the next question was, “What was the name of that show again?”
In fact, fans of The Game — and they are legion — have been pining for the show’s return since the CW axed it in 2009. A grass-roots social media campaign combined with a dearth of scripted programming for African-American viewers helped juice tune-in to unprecedented levels. Game set a record as the most-watched scripted-series premiere ever on ad-supported cable. And it was the second-most-watched program in BET’s 30-year history, behind only the 2009 BET Awards, which aired three days after Michael Jackson died and pulled in 10.2 million viewers.
“The social networking movement really kept the fan base alive,” says David Wilson, founder and managing editor of African-American news site TheGrio.com. “A lot of people who hadn’t seen the show picked up on it through social media. And that really united the show’s fan base.”
But The Game wasn’t exactly burning up mainstream-media buzz meters. There was no full-blitz ad campaign like the wall-to-wall promos for American Idol, just a smattering of billboards around town and a handful of reviews. In fact, Game’s news cycle had probably peaked in April, when BET and CBS Television Studios announced they were partnering to produce new episodes of the show. But if you looked a littler closer in the online world, the dramedy about pro football player Derwin (Pooch Hall) and his wife Melanie (Tia Mowry) was a very hot topic on Twitter and Facebook.
“I heard a lot of people had FB statuses that night that said, “Don’t bother me from 10 to 11, I’m watching The Game!” says Debra Lee, CEO and chairwoman of BET Networks. “People also used the show’s photos as their profile pics.”
And so it is, just as execs are still getting their heads around digital streaming and DVRs, TV in the Twitter era has become an invaluable weapon in the race for ratings.
A spinoff of the 2000-08 CW sitcom Girlfriends, Game averaged 2.3 million viewers in its first season on the CW (2006-07), climbing to 2.5 million in its second. But by Season 3, the CW had begun to target young women with dramas including zeitgeist hit Gossip Girl, and Game was shunted to the Friday night graveyard, where it languished, finishing the season with an average viewership of 1.8 million. Creator and executive producer Mara Brock tried in vain to convince the CW to turn Game into an hour drama while the show’s cast launched a YouTube campaign called “Save The Game.”
When the CW canceled it anyway, producers Brock Akil and Kelsey Grammer sold Game to BET, which began running off-net reruns. By that time, broadcast TV had become rather monochromatic. The CW — the last redoubt for shows that spoke directly to African-American audiences — had canceled Girlfriends in 2008, and Chris Rock’s Everybody Hates Chris finished its four-season run the year before.
Game, observes Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media, “helps fill a void on television.”
“A lot of networks have abandoned African-American viewers,” Wilson adds. “There are actually fewer shows, particularly scripted shows, for African-Americans than there were in the ’90s,” he adds, rattling off a slew of network comedies of yesteryear including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Cosby Show and its spinoff A Different World. “So The Game is bound to get a lot of attention.”
To take advantage of that attention, BET embarked on a multifaceted and social media-oriented marketing campaign. Its digital division monitored social networks such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter; and instead of creating its own Facebook page for the show, executives found 35-year-old Stacey Mattocks, an insurance agent from Miramar, Fla., who created a page for The Game on her own while the sitcom was still on the CW. BET brought Mattocks onto the team part-time and paid her to run the page. Mattocks even attended the show’s BET premiere and walked the red carpet. The Facebook page now has more than 3.5 million members, up from 3 million in April. The official Twitter feed — @BETTheGame, which BET uses to tweet tune-in reminders and links to preview clips — has only 133,278 followers; BET as a whole has 279,000 followers on its feed. But all those followers have followers. And so on.
“We’ve definitely been experimenting,” Lee says. “It’s hard because something has to happen organically. The more you try to influence, the less it works. Fans and audience have to be passionate for it to work. It’s a good supplement to traditional marketing. Social networking helps us stretch the dollar. Fans do the promoting for us.”
Perhaps even more important, BET took advantage of the stunning figures for Twitter usage by African-Americans: They make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but represent 25 percent of Twitter users, according to a study by Edison Research that’s been widely disseminated and dissected since it was published in the spring. Indeed, Twitter in many ways can be more influential than Facebook — which, after all, is largely about a user’s private social network. Twitter is about having your own public broadcast channel; BET can cut out the middleman and share information directly with friends, yes, but also strangers, who will happily retweet for you.
BET learned this lesson after the 2009 BET Awards. On the night of the three-hour-plus telecast, the 10 top-trending topics on Twitter were related to the event, and BET’s Twitter feed for the show jumped from slightly more than 10,000 followers to 40,000-plus. Meanwhile, traffic at BET.com doubled compared to the previous year’s BET Awards.
And BET saw similar Twitter trends in the run-up to the Jan. 11 premiere of The Game.
“We found Twitter to be a great early indicator as to how well The Game was going to do,” Lee says. “The night of the premiere, the show was one of the top 10 trending topics. People were talking about the cast the night of the show and DNA testing, which was part of the story line. All in all, I was hoping it would be a hit but no idea it would be this big. It’s all a very pleasant surprise.”
For those on the ground in social media, Game’s success is not surprising. Angela Benton — a fan of the show and the founder of Black Web 2.0, which covers technology and new media — was as glued to the television as she was to her laptop during the show, scanning her Twitter stream for comments from friends and strangers during commercial breaks. While watching a recent episode, she says, “I checked in to make sure I wasn’t crazy for thinking Melanie was wrong for taking a DNA sample of Derwin’s baby without his permission,” says Benton, 29, a divorced mother of three who lives in Charlotte, N.C.
In other words, The Game is more than appointment TV: It is television as a real-time, interactive, collective community, where conversations can at once distract and enhance the TV-watching experience.
This season’s second episode of Game was down from the opener but maintained impressive audience levels, averaging 5.9 million viewers. And the show has helped BET launch the comedy Let’s Stay Together.
“I hope one of the lessons that the industry will learn from this is that you can have a show that is targeted at African-Americans and it can do well,” Wilson says. “You just have to engage the audience on several levels. You cant just run a 30-second spot because people aren’t living there. They’re living on Facebook. They’re living on Twitter. Fortunately for The Game, it had this grass-roots social media following that translated into viewers.”
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