Will & Grace Should Perform for NBC, but Not All Revivals Are Created Equal

Buyers welcome its return and others' but worry about Roseanne's

NBC is so confident about Will & Grace's return that it has already ordered a second season.
Andrew Eccles/NBC

Tonight, for the first time since 2006, NBC will air a new episode of Will & Grace. The network is so certain the sitcom will pick up right where it left off—as The X-Files did for Fox—that NBC Entertainment president Robert Greenblatt ordered a second season a full month before the first one debuted.

While buyers are generally bullish about Will & Grace’s chances this fall—it will overshadow NBC’s other two freshman shows—they caution that despite built-in brand recognition with audiences, revivals can be as risky as any new series. One return in particular has them very concerned: Roseanne, which ABC is bringing back for midseason.

TV revivals have had mixed success over the past few years. The X-Files was an enormous hit for Fox when it returned in January 2016, and it will be back again midseason. But Prison Break was met with a more muted reception last season, while a new version of 24, minus Kiefer Sutherland, was canceled after one season. Meanwhile, neither of NBC’s most recent revival attempts, both in 2015, were successful. Heroes Reborn lasted just one season, while the network pulled the plug on its attempt to bring back the ABC Craig T. Nelson sitcom Coach after seeing the first episode.

“I don’t think there’s any real rule about it,” Greenblatt said. “You have to look at each situation and just react from your gut. Will & Grace seemed like a really easy decision because you had the exact same fabulous cast, producers, concept, and it looks and feels the same. They shot a thing that they showed to the world [last fall’s hilarious pitch to get out the vote for Hillary Clinton], and it was like, oh my god, that’s the show again, and we love it.”

Greenblatt loved it so much he gave Will & Grace a quick Season 2 order.

“My gut just tells me that this show is going to be as good as it ever was,” he said. “There’s so much genuine affection for the show that we’ve heard from everybody that I can’t imagine a scenario where we want to do 12 episodes and, ‘Oh, that was nice; everybody go home.’ It’s one of the best written shows anywhere, including among the comedies we have. So none of us internally thought there’s any downside to a second season.”

But as Greenblatt recently discovered with Heroes Reborn, not every revival will connect with audiences, especially without the original cast.

“Heroes was unique because [creator] Tim [Kring] really wanted to tell a new version of the story, and we knew there was a rabid fan base for the show,” he said. “I don’t think it all gelled. I don’t think we could have ever gotten that cast back together, but we still thought at the time—this was a couple of years ago, when we were still trying to get our head above the water—‘this is a good idea.’”

In hindsight, Greenblatt now realizes “it’s hard if you have to recast everything and start over.”

“Look, we’ve had fantasies about The West Wing and ER and some of the great NBC shows,” he said. “But they’re hard to do, especially if you can’t get the original creators and some of the cast. The X-Files is a rarity because [David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson] wanted to come back and do it again. It’s hard to recapture that. I developed that show, so I know how tricky that was to do.”

As does X-Files creator Chris Carter.

“I think reboots are a dangerous thing,” Carter told Adweek last year. “I call it programming by feather duster. You dust off an old title and see if it flies; there must be some audience out there for it. I hate that idea, and I didn’t want this to be that. You can’t just come back and give it a lick and a polish, as my mom used to say. You’ve got to give people fresh, original material.”

The CW president Mark Pedowitz is also proceeding cautiously when it comes to potential revivals. He has revived or rebooted shows from other networks, including Melrose Place, 90210 and starting next month, Dynasty, but has yet to take another crack at a property that originated on his own network.

“It all comes down to, what is the take, and what are the auspices?” Pedowitz said. “If you have the right auspices, you do it. If you don’t, you shouldn’t do it.”

Pedowitz said he’s had “a variety of preliminary discussions about a variety of different shows, including Charmed.”

“We’ll see what comes out,” he said.

Buyers said they were cautiously optimistic about Will & Grace’s reception this fall.

“Everyone feels like at least coming out of the gate, it should have a good, strong sampling,” said Nick Hartofilis, evp of national investment, Zenith.

Betty Pat McCoy, svp, managing director and director of investment, GSD&M, said those in her office who watched the original run are excited for its return, but the younger staffers are immune to its nostalgia.

“I’m going to love see whether they can get those younger viewers to watch it like we used to,” McCoy said.

“For the 25-54 [demo], I certainly think Will & Grace has a great chance,” agreed Carrie Drinkwater, svp, group director of investment activation, Mediahub. “I think it will be hard to bring in the younger audience, and maybe that’s not what they’re trying to do. The money is in 25-54. There’s a lot of dollars chasing that.”

Drinkwater is also high on the prospects for ABC’s controversial revival of American Idol, which will air early next year.

“I love that genre,” she said. “I think people want it—it’s safe, it’s live, it’s family, it’s co-viewing … it’s all those things that we crave and we look for for clients.”

But several buyers were concerned about Roseanne, particularly after the cast’s disastrous appearance onstage during ABC’s upfront in May.

“Just because a program was good in the past doesn’t mean it’s going to work in the future,” one buyer said. “Roseanne is a perfect example of that. The mentality of our world has changed, and you have to see chemistry between the characters. It has to be relevant to the world of today. If you looked at the cast of Roseanne on the stage, there was not one drop of chemistry, and they were all completely awkward and uncomfortable with each other. That’s the death knell for a program.”

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