Tuned In: How BET's The Game Is Adjusting TV's Racial Balance

Why adjusting TV's racial balance is good for business

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Illustration by Josue Evilla for TIME; All Photographs Courtesy BET; Broad Casting

There's nothing that looks especially unusual about The Game. It's a sitcom, with dramatic elements, about pro football players and their wives and girlfriends. There are misunderstandings and sex jokes, and characters learn lessons about themselves, love and the limits of money and fame.

But a couple of things about The Game are unusual indeed. First, after the CW canceled the show, it was unexpectedly picked up by BET and opened its new season in January to 7.7 million viewers — an astonishing number for basic cable and more than triple what it was getting on its old network. Second, it has a mostly African-American cast, which on the big networks is almost as rare these days as The Game's dramatic return from the dead.

The first article I wrote for TIME, in 1999, was about an NAACP protest over the blinding whiteness of prime time. Since then, TV shows with big ensembles, like Grey's Anatomy, Glee and Lost, have broadened their supporting casts to include multiple races and nationalities.

But decades after The Cosby Show, the idea that it's hard for a series without a white star to reach an audience is entrenched. When minority actors land leads — like Laurence Fishburne on CSI or Forest Whitaker on Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior — they're teamed with white co-stars. Much-maligned reality TV arguably does better: American Idol now has judges Randy Jackson (black), Jennifer Lopez (Latina) and Steven Tyler (crypt keeper).

While the WB and UPN were criticized back in 1999 for shunting black casts into "ghettos" of sitcoms on the same night, at least those shows existed. The two networks have since merged to become the CW, which has done away with African-American-cast sitcoms altogether. (Most of its scripted shows now are ensemble dramas with mostly white casts.)

The issue is not whether every TV show needs some perfect, artificial racial balance. It's whether TV, overall, treats white as the default setting for stories that call for characters of mostly one race — family comedies, for instance. Sitcoms are a means by which pop culture sets norms, establishes comfort and demystifies the other, as The Cosby Show's Huxtable family did. (Granted, the mass audience then was bigger than today's.) What if a show next season did the same for a family of Muslims or South Asian Americans (or, for that matter, white Evangelicals)?

Of course, TV is not a charity; no one can compel viewers to watch a sitcom for the betterment of society. But The Game's ratings suggest it's simply good business to invest in shows about people TV has ignored. Sure, BET (Black Entertainment Television) targets black viewers, but this series' subject matter — love, money, sports, fame — is pretty universal stuff.

If nothing else, this revival of a cast-off sitcom has demonstrated that there is a real opportunity in showing characters that most of TV isn't. And that if you want to change The Game, you've got to change the players.