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‘The Game’ Broadcasts the Black Sitcom Revival

Aymar Jean Christian January 21, 2011 uncategorized 3 Comments

Thanks for News for TV Majors and UWisconsin’s Antenna for linking!

UPDATE 2: Please check out my popular post, “10 Web Shows BET Could Greenlight After The Game.”

UPDATE: And it’s already happening. Networks are grabbing black stars. And even though The Game‘s premiere ratings have fallen substantially, NBC has picked up a comedy series called Black & Right, from Game writer Jennifer Rice-Genzuk. S&A says the show “centers around a young, hip liberal African-American couple who lose everything and are forced to move in with their die-hard Republican pundit mother and her white conservative husband.”

ORIGINAL: Last summer Deadline reported on a story no one seemed to care about at the time, but struck me as pretty phenomenal: TBS had been in talks to pick up 90 episodes of Ice Cube’s sitcom Are We There Yet? The deal would bring the sitcom into syndication, making it another coup for Lionsgate subsidiary Debmar-Mercury, which distributes Tyler Perry’s House of Payne and Meet the Browns.

Yet it seemed every time I pitched a story or talked to a reporter about the return of the black sitcom, I got no response!

But with the recent gangbusters premiere of once-canceled The Game on BET, it seems everyone’s hip to the trend now.

The Game‘s huge ratings — second only to The Jersey Shore on its premiere week — broke records for cable sitcoms and will probably spur production of new shows. For a little perspective, The Game‘s premiere 18-49 rating outdid sitcom darlings like Community and 30 Rock and came within throwing distance of hits like Big Bang Theory and The Office; its second episode’s ratings met NBC’s average for its 3-hour comedy bloc of sitcoms. Keep in mind: it’s also a cheaper show to make.

Between shows like Tyler Perry’s Are We There Yet? and Meet the Browns, BET’s Let’s Stay Together (from Queen Latifah, doing okay, but not close to The Game), recently premiered Love That Girl on TVOne, animated sitcoms The Boondocks and Cleveland Show, the black primetime sitcom is making a small comeback. Already BET has greenlit another comedy series, Reed Between the Lines, starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Malcolm-Jamal Warner, and VH1′s Single Ladies (also from Latifah) is premiering soon. Tyler Perry has apparently been working on more shows, but we haven’t heard much on that, perhaps because of this.

The Game is riding a years-long trend of younger audiences shifting toward ad-supported cable, one of the many reasons Oprah jumped from broadcast to her own station. And cable networks of all kinds have been ordering scripts over the last few years, tempted by higher ad rates, syndication and international distribution possibilities. Most of those shows have been dramas, but sitcoms are on the rise. Even CMT, country music’s station, has a new one.

But most importantly, black audiences have been clamoring for more content related to the community, after the UPN’s programming got subsumed into the CW and those shows got nixed. Put simply: there was a major hole in the market, especially for non-colorblind casting, the de rigeur mode of hiring black actors on TV (and which is sometimes successful, sometimes not).

Perhaps why the media missed the trend was none of the black sitcoms have won critical acclaim or hired buzzy actors like Betty White. Black TV sophisticates are probably hoping for critically respectable black half-hour shows like in the 90s. We’ve had dramas like The Wire, Luther, No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, but they haven’t garnered big ratings in the US. No sitcom has come close.

The Game may appeal to the upscale slant of some black television sitcoms, which made it appealing to BET and might get it some more media attention. Says The Grio:

With The Game Akil created a world where black people could be rich, fabulous and successful, but still “kept it real” — an image that BET coveted, but up until now couldn’t exactly pull off. Their reputation had long been tarnished by such shows as BET Uncut and Hot Ghetto Mess, and most of educated black America wouldn’t come near the network with a ten-foot pole.

The “keep it real” aspect is key. If a series can keep it real — we know, and don’t know, what that means — and manage to be as creative and witty as the acclaimed group of broadcast sitcoms  (Community, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Big Bang Theory, The Office) we might have the next Cosby Show coming soon to a TV near you.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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