Sunday, January 16, 2011

Back From Vacation with a Bang!

No, I'm not talking about myself. OK, maybe a little. But mostly I'm talking about The Game.

It had a much longer vacation than I did (20 months vs. five days) and it came back with a much bigger bang. Widely reported is that The Game premiered huge on BET with 7.7 million viewers, a 3.6/10 adults 18-49 rating, and a 6.4 rating in the CW's target women 18-34 audience. Back in my Tuesday midseason preview I said in my typical ride-the-fence fashion that "The Game could transfer its audience to cable much better than previous shows to make the leap." I am happy to report that, well, I was correct about that much! But... it was the understatement of the century.

Don't want to spoil too much of The Game's War of 18-49 post, coming this summer (it just got much more interesting!), but the show hit levels that it could have never imagined during its run of three full CW seasons. Its adults 18-49 high was a 1.4. Like previous War entry Everybody Hates Chris, it really got killed by its long hiatus during the 2007-08 WGA strike and spent most of its last season and a half in the 0.7 to 0.8 18-49 range. Its one-hour CW finale on 5/15/09 got a 0.9 demo.

20 months later, its next original episode gets four times that mark. Not only that, but it's more than 2.5 times the previous series high. It's pretty tough to get a grasp on what a remarkable achievement that is. Where did all these people come from? Let me just throw this out there: one of the show's closest analogues in recent memory is Law & Order: Criminal Intent (cancelled on broadcast, moved in originals to a cable network that already heavily syndicated it). Its final NBC episode got a 3.0 A18-49. If it quadrupled its audience like The Game, that means CI woulda debuted on USA with a twelve-point-oh demo. It actually premiered to a 1.3. Now, that's a pretty silly comparison for several reasons, much smaller raw numbers to start with being the biggest one. It's just the best example I can find to illustrate what a ridiculous mathematical improbability this Game debut pulled off.

I don't really know how to approach the "how did this happen" side of things, because I'm pretty stumped. Lots of shows have switched networks with supposedly better promotion and passionate core fanbases and done nothing like this. It's not like moving from the CW to BET (a network that's never really had a major scripted original) is some sort of massive increase in profile. Or at least it didn't seem to be. The question that I try to ask when something totally bizarre like this happens is What is the lesson? There are a lot of suggestions floating around:
  • The CW shouldn't have axed The Game. Hard to really agree here. It ran three seasons. It began as a spinoff of UPN's Girlfriends and was a decent retainer of that audience early on, eventually coming to build on the fast-tanking comedy and often rating the highest in the final months of the CW's two-hour comedy block. Then it frequently built on Everybody Hates Chris in its Friday season. It made some decent gains, but it's hard to say it was some diamond in the rough. It peaked at a 1.4 and couldn't even break a 1.0 during the last half of its run.I don't think it was a slam dunk cancellation, but it was far from being an all-star for its network down the stretch. Smallville has done better the last couple years in the lead-off hour on Friday.
  • The CW should've treated The Game better. Eh. You know, the CW's fall 2006 lineup didn't really make the net look like the W18-34 chaser everyone thinks of it as now. Dawn Ostroff actually came from UPN, and it seemingly fit in pretty well with the comedy lineup. It's not like they could run ten-hour marathons during the daytime. How else could they have possibly built what they had into a 3.6 A18-49 rating or anything even remotely close? Some argued at the time that the show should've gotten a whirl after America's Next Top Model, and in retrospect that looks like a potentially worthy effort. I think the show just fit a lot worse on CW than, say, Criminal Intent did on NBC, so there was a much larger potentially untapped first-run audience than there was for an NBC Law & Order spinoff. Not much the CDub can do about that without rejiggering the whole network. (Of course, many think they should do just that.)
    • Weird shit just happens sometimes. This is my offering to the list, and it's what I'm going with. Heavy syndication on a much better fit of a network, apparently some really good marketing, and a passionate fanbase aren't usually enough to even hold up across a network move. But throw in an audience that was clearly far from fully tapped on the CW, and the new network did a fantastic job of building the buzz. It was a perfect storm, and a tip of the cap to 'em.
    • This can be replicated with my favorite show! I'm editing this in here because it was something I wanted to address when I started on this post and then I somehow forgot about it. Will The Game encourage future broadcast cancellation pick-ups on cable? I think there's a chance that it will, certainly moreso than the relatively middling performances of CI, Southland, and Futurama have. Will there be many more successes? I'm not holding my breath. As I said above, this was really a perfect storm. To get picked up at all, the show has to be able to make a decent case based on its broadcast ratings, and the overwhelming majority of cancelled shows cannot; in this age of broadcast declines, almost everything that even does "decent" is simply brought back. And for it to be a legitimate success on a Game level, I think the show just plain has to miss out on its target audience on broadcast. And that doesn't happen too often either. For example, if TNT were to pick up an aging CBS procedural, there'd be nowhere to go but down. That show almost certainly got whatever eyeballs it was gonna get on the CBS stage.
      Last thing. Will The Game hold up? I'm hesitant to bet against it, but I keep going back to those rather unassuming first three years of first-run ratings. This one week was a triumph, but is the week-in week-out audience for this show really magically gonna become 400% bigger? I think it'll drop, but obviously it has a long, long way to drop before this is anything less than a huge win for BET. I see a mega-Hot in Cleveland situation here; doesn't hold the initially amazing ratings, but holds more than enough to officially put its network on the scripted map.

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