Apr 12, 2011

 
 
 

The top network for African Americans announces plans today for Reed Between the Lines, a family comedy starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner (The Cosby Show) and Tracee Ross Ellis (Girlfriends), due in October. They'll play professional parents (she's a psychologist, he's an English professor) of three kids.

Two more new comedies are on tap for next summer, and BET is exploring its first foray into drama, developing a movie for 2012.

The stunning success of The Game has been a driving force. In January, two years after CW canceled the comedy about football players and the women in their lives, BET — which had been airing syndicated reruns of the series — launched new episodes.

The fourth-season premiere drew 7.7 million viewers, cable's biggest comedy opener ever, more than doubling the show's previous peak. All told, the winter season averaged 5.3 million; companion series Let's Stay Together claimed 2.9 million; and BET's prime-time audience jumped 24% to 950,000 viewers, its most-watched quarter ever.

Both shows have been renewed for 22-episode seasons and return in January.

BET's CEO, Debra Lee, calls the results an "empowering and satisfying" payoff for its entry into scripted programming, years after the network took heat for a steady diet of suggestive hip-hop videos. (Somebodies, a 2008 comedy, fizzled.)

"Our community is still starved for good original programming," Lee says. "The networks haven't had much to offer the last few years, and people are hungry."

Fox, WB and UPN, partly built on programming aimed at black audiences, have dropped it or no longer exist, and CW stopped airing comedies in 2009.

So the success reminded Hollywood and Madison Avenue about the value of African-American viewers, who watch more TV than any other group. The audience "is extremely loyal," says original-programming chief Loretha Jones, "and if you deliver a quality show to them week to week, they'll show up."

Game creator Mara Brock Akil says the new home is a better fit with more marketing support. At CW, "our numbers were competing with Gossip Girl, which got all the money and attention." And unlike Tyler Perry's broad family sitcoms on TBS, the show's adult appeal "allows us to deal with characters who are more complicated and flawed," she says.

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