Was Racism Really the Name of ‘The Game?’

It’s been said that Black Television is on its last leg—and these grumblings have only increased in the last couple weeks. Between The CW’s cancellation of the three-year-old dramedy,The Game, and Spike Lee’s latest diatribe comparing Tyler Perry’s TBS series, House of Payne and Meet the Browns to the works of Mantan Moreland and Sleep ‘n’ Eat***, you’d be hard-pressed to find an unoccupied soapbox in all of the black community.

But even though it sucks that Mara Brock Akil’s second show got the same abrupt and unsung sendoff as her first (Girlfriends), there are a few more perspectives to consider here, other than the one that decries The Man’s Foot on the Black Filmmaker/Showrunner’s Neck.

The first is this: Mara Brock Akil had two multi-season shows with all or predominantly Black casts. Girlfriends lasted eight seasons. Eight. That means it was on as long as The Cosby Show. That means it aired much longer than much better shows—Black, White, and Other. It also yielded a spin-off that lasted three seasons, an even rarer feat. Here, Mara pulls off an amazing hat trick, besting the creators of NBC’s white, ten-season darling, Friends, whose one sorry spin-off, Joey, barely made it through Season Two (and please note here that Joey didn’t get a “proper series finale,” either—though arguably, it didn’t “deserve” one).

All this begs the question, why should we lament the loss of Girlfriends and The Game, when both are in ubiquitous syndication on network and/or cable stations daily (The Game airs in hour-blocks on BET three times a day)? Yeah, okay. We never got to see Joan exchange vows with Richard T. Jones in a grossly over-promoted series finale. Sure. We’ll never know if Tasha and Kelly ever reconciled, because The Game had to rush its ending. But don’t cry for Mara, Argentina. Girlfriends was top-rated for a lot of its run; The Game had a very loyal cult viewership. This woman will work (and probably even show-run) again (even after publicly voicing her disillusionment).

Another noteworthy point is this: these two series were given their chances to thrive and they did. Their “sudden” cancellation has less to do with the network’s unwillingness to let their black shows shine than with the writers’ strike that overshadowed the success of most shows that aired in 2007. The industry still hasn’t recovered from the hits it took when the whole town was forced to shut down production for over a half-year; just look at the diminished quality of the shows that did survive.

By industry standards, The CW is still an upstart network. That means it doesn’t have money to throw at the budgets for shows with average viewerships of 1.5 million viewers in their most recent seasons (as was the case with The Game and Everybody Hates Chris). In a simple numbers crunch, their white teen one-hour dramas (Supernatural, Gossip Girl, Smallville) gross twice as many weekly viewers (even in rerun weeks). Please note that Smallville is in its eighth season.

For a network that has to make drastic budget cuts, a workhorse like Smallville and a freshman sensation like Gossip Girl would make more sense to keep. Apparently, teens (and not just white ones) watch more TV, targeted to their demographic, than post-adolescent minorities watch shows targeted to theirs. Since Girlfriends/Game target audiences skewed older and their viewerships were smaller overall, they got canceled.

Some would argue that they never saw a wraparound bus ad for Girlfriends or The Game; ergo, these shows didn’t get the marketing blitz that Gossip Girl and its ilk did. To that, I say: a. I have seen bus ads for Girlfriends, at least, in urban communities, and b. why would the network shell out as much in advertising for those shows, when they likely projected half the viewership for The Game as for Gossip Girl?

I’m bogging myself (and you) down in minutia here, but suffice it to say: this whole Black Television thing isn’t as simple as ‘cism. More appreciation for the shows we’ve had (many of which you can catch on TVOne all day, every day) and more support for the ones we’ll have in the future (and if anyone thinks for one minute that there’ll never be another original black show on network or cable, he/she is illin’) are more productive uses of energy than complaining about how we’ve shortchanged.

Have you glanced at your TV Guide lately? Everybody’s being shortchanged.

*** The Spike Lee comments provide enough fodder for a whole other article. But here, it has to be said that Tyler Perry’s Tyler Perry Sitcoms are still on the air and as heavily promoted as they are because Black people watch them. A lot of Black people. It isn’t because TBS only wants to see “buffoonery” on the air, when it comes to Black programming. It isn’t because Tyler Perry’s main purpose for being is to Set The Race Back 200 Years. Plain and simple, it’s because those shows are top-rated. And they’re top-rated because people find them entertaining—more entertaining, in fact, than soberer, more substantial, much better written shows with multicultural/Black casts. Is it fair to those who’d rather see the latter thrive? No. But there are fewer of you high-brow viewers than there are House of Payne fans. It is what it is.

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9 thoughts on “Was Racism Really the Name of ‘The Game?’

  1. Tyler June 4, 2009 at 11:01 am Reply

    Everything you say here is correct.

    But if you accept this argument essentially you say that because there are fewer black people than white people, we don’t deserve programming that targets us. That’s a dangerous argument

    The reality is this:

    Black shows are niche not because they are made solely for black people, but because non-black people by and large assume that they can’t relate to shows that don’t have any white people in them. That we watch shows that don’t have any black people in them doesn’t strike them as particularly odd.

    As long as everything is numbers driven, black folks will get the short end of the stick. It’s inevitable but that doesn’t make it right. But you are correct, it doesn’t necessarily make it racist (other than the fact that capitalism is inherently unfair, particularly to minorities [in this case, non-whites])

    • slb June 4, 2009 at 11:12 am Reply

      I agree with your reality, but I do take exception with this:

      “But if you accept this argument essentially you say that because there are fewer black people than white people, we don’t deserve programming that targets us. That’s a dangerous argument.”

      Nowhere here have I even indirectly implied that “we don’t deserve programming that targets us.” I’m saying that this particular programming that targeted us (The Game/Girlfriends) survived for a fair amount of time, considering its ratings at time of cancellation.

      Also: the “success” of House of Payne suggests that even if there are fewer Black viewers, more Black viewers are watching that show than the “quality/mature/sophisticated” Black shows–enough to keep it on the air. It’s in its fifth season.

  2. Michael June 4, 2009 at 12:10 pm Reply

    — “The first is this: Mara Brock Akil had two multi-season shows with all or predominantly Black casts. Girlfriends lasted eight seasons. Eight. That means it was on as long as The Cosby Show. That means it aired much longer than much better shows—Black, White, and Other.”

    This unfortunately, has more to do with the CW still being a relatively new network that needed some series that could bring in a sizable amount of advertising revenue. Since this show was the #1 rated sitcom among Blacks at the time, it makes sense that the CW would keep it on air. However, the second they decided to go in a new direction, they naturally, decided to bounce around the series from night to night, helping it lose a fraction of its small but loyal audience, then abandon the show altogether.

    And unlike “The Cosby Show,” “Girlfriends” never lived up to its full potential because the network did not go to bat for it the way it has for its other series.

    —“(and please note here that Joey didn’t get a “proper series finale,” either—though arguably, it didn’t “deserve” one)”

    “The Game” lasted four seasons and was a few episodes away from reaching the magic # for syndication (on broadcast networks). Joey, by contrast, did not even get close. If there’s any UPN/CW series to compare “Joey” to it’s “Homeboys In Outer Space,” not “The Game.”

    —“This woman will work (and probably even show-run) again (even after publicly voicing her disillusionment).”

    The fact of the matter is no one of her stature in TV should have to publicly lament about applying for staff writing positions when you yourself admit she had a series that lasted as long as “The Cosby Show.”

    —“In a simple numbers crunch, their white teen one-hour dramas (Supernatural, Gossip Girl, Smallville) gross twice as many weekly viewers (even in rerun weeks). Please note that Smallville is in its eighth season.

    For a network that has to make drastic budget cuts, a workhorse like Smallville and a freshman sensation like Gossip Girl would make more sense to keep. Apparently, teens (and not just white ones) watch more TV, targeted to their demographic, than post-adolescent minorities watch shows targeted to theirs.”

    You do realize the CW almost went under totally because the shows in which you speak of weren’t generating as much money as good of ratings as the network let on, no?

    For one, for a very long time a huge chunk of “Gossip Girl’s” viewership was from their online streaming, which meant the CW wasn’t really churning a profit from ad revenue.

    The network in turn made a huge effort to pump more money into that show and others like it to try and get crossover audiences. By that same token, “The Game” had lots and lots of hits via YouTube, but because they bounced the show around so many nights and stuck it on Friday, naturally, the show would dip in the ratings.

    —“To that, I say: a. I have seen bus ads for Girlfriends, at least, in urban communities, and b. why would the network shell out as much in advertising for those shows, when they likely projected half the viewership for The Game as for Gossip Girl?”

    I see ads for the white shows everywhere. Do you know what show “The Golden Girls” was sandwiched in between? 227! Jackee’ has an Emmy. Why doesn’t Tichina Arnold?

    “Everybody Hates Chris” scored great ratings for UPN at the time considering it aired on the most competitive night on TV (Thursday). The show garnered critical praise from mainstream and urban press. That show was basically a comedic version of “The Wonder Years,” but because it was viewed as Black, and thus, less marketable, the network bounced it around from night to night and the show lost its buzz.

    I refuse to believe that this is simply an issue of dollars and cents. There are racist implications to the notion that anything “too Black” won’t produce any green.

    And they are factually wrong! For the past three decades there have been plenty of shows starring Black people that have gotten great ratings and crossed over. Somewhere along the way executives convinced themselves that we can’t crossover, but we’re sure good enough to use to get an early leg up as a network.

    FOX did it, the WB did, UPN did, and now the two networks’ lovechild of a station has done it.

    Everyone’s being shortchanged, but some groups are being more shortchanged than others.

    Do you know how often prospective Black TV writers are told to [never] write any spec script that reads as ‘too black?’ Not to mention the reason why NBC and others are looking to possibly air more shows from Blacks because as one person in the biz filled me in, “Because of Obama they think we’re hot again.”

    Race was a factor in how the show was treated and how we’re treated overall in entertainment. It always is.

    • slb June 4, 2009 at 12:31 pm Reply

      This was informative/enlightening. I don’t have anything to contest.

    • shani-o June 4, 2009 at 12:43 pm Reply

      Way to blog in the comments, Mikey! But thanks for this perspective.

  3. Jeremy June 4, 2009 at 12:36 pm Reply

    Semi-related:

    One of the most challenging situations in the formation of my racial identity was when I had to explain to my white friend from rural Michigan who Tyler Perry was, and why he deserved a series of TV shows and movies made with his name attached to them. Then I had to explain to them HOW I knew who Tyler Perry was. After I gave them some version of “Oh, well he’s really popular in the black community” (or something simple like that), they were still a little confused as to how a white Jewish kid from upstate New York got this info.

    Sometimes it’s really awkward being white, and having white friends.

    • t.o.a n. June 5, 2009 at 8:01 am Reply

      What I find very challenging is the fact that someone white would find it surprising that someone else who is white would know something specific about the black community. As someone who has grown up and gone to school in an all white community I found it more than frustrating that I knew everything about the way Patty does her hair but she was clueless about mine. Is it that people of color live in isolated worlds physically and mentally that whites should never venture into? Yes, I know that this is not really related but I felt compelled to type it … and yes, I am finished.

  4. PG June 4, 2009 at 4:32 pm Reply

    I was really surprised that “Everybody Hates Chris” didn’t pick up a bigger audience. As was said above, it’s a black “Wonder Years,” except helmed by one of the most famous comedians in America — in other words, it’s actually like an edgier, less saccharine “Cosby Show.” It was the rare series that was family-oriented but also cool enough for adults without kids to watch. I never watched “Girlfriends” (too much like a black West Coast “Sex & the City) or “The Game” (my interest in the lives of pro sportsmen and their WOGs is nonexistent), but I was glued to “EHC.”

    I really think they should have tried marketing EHC to immigrant/2nd gen audiences; I’m not black, but I could relate to Chris’s family: the dad working all the time to make ends meet, the mom who was determined that her family was going to be better than everyone else in the neighborhood and that the kids were going to get a good education even if their lives at school sucked because of it, the difficulties of being one of a few PoC at an all-white school, etc.

    Then again, Asians and Latinos are even more invisible to the media folks than black people are, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that that angles doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone.

  5. Grump June 4, 2009 at 5:28 pm Reply

    Aside from Cosby and “A Different World”, what other Black shows got a proper send-off? I do think it is problematic how Black shows are handled with the constant changing of their schedules and the “lack of” proper promotion. Also, there was some controversy over the promoting of “EHC” and “Girlfriends” when UPN/WB merged because those shows were not being as marketed as the other shows that made the merge.

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