ABC Is Giving Itself a Roseanne Do-Over With The Conners

Network expects a big audience for the spinoff’s premiere; the challenge will be getting them to stick around

The Conners will tackle storylines like withering job markets in Middle America and life as a single mom. ABC
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Few recent TV shows have exploded on the scene—and then imploded—with the force and speed of ABC’s Roseanne revival last spring. The sitcom debuted in March to 18.2 million viewers and a 5.2 rating in the 18-49 demo, making it the most-watched comedy telecast in more than three years, and led all entertainment shows last season with a 5.3 C7 rating. But just two weeks after the show and star Roseanne Barr were the toast of its May upfront, ABC shockingly canceled Roseanne, following a racist tweet from Barr, leaving the network without its most prized asset going into this year’s upfront.

Now the network is giving itself a Roseanne do-over, bringing back a Barr-free spinoff this Tuesday, with the rest of the cast intact, called The Conners. Buyers are expecting a large audience for the show’s premiere, but are taking a wait and see approach about the program’s long-term prospects without Barr.

Though Barr’s Twitter feed had long been controversial, ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey had given her the benefit of the doubt when ordering, and then renewing, the revival. “Roseanne has said herself that she does not want what she says publicly to overshadow the show in any way, and I do hope that she will continue to be thoughtful about what she shares on social moving forward,” Dungey said in May. Looking back on the debacle, “I don’t know that there’s anything we could have done differently,” Dungey says now. “I still am glad we made the show and brought this group of people together, because I’m hopeful that The Conners is going to continue this legacy in a new and different way.”

"The show needs to hold up on its own merits to drive continued viewership."
Neil Vendetti, president of investment at Zenith

By the time ABC ordered The Conners in June, the network had closed most of its upfront deals, so ABC has been selling the show’s ad inventory in the scatter market. Many buyers are expecting a large premiere audience on Tuesday, as curious viewers tune in to experience the show without Barr, and how the series will address Roseanne Conner’s absence. But beyond that, buyers are unsure of whether viewers will stick around. “They’ll be significant attention paid to it in its early episodes,” said Neil Vendetti, president of investment at Zenith. “And then, the show needs to hold up on its own merits to drive continued viewership.” Other buyers said they are purchasing ads in the premiere—where the network is getting as much as $300,000 per 30-second spot—but will then hold off for a few weeks to see what happens to the ratings. (Last season, Roseanne spots were going for $200,000 in the upfront, and as much as $420,000 in scatter after its huge premiere.)

The Conners’ later debut—four weeks into the new season—wasn’t due to the delay in pulling together the spinoff, but ABC’s commitment to air the American Music Awards on the third Tuesday of the season, which would have disrupted its Tuesday schedule. “That strategy was in place already,” prior to the Roseanne-Conners switcheroo, Dungey said.

After a wildly successful marketing campaign last spring for Roseanne that combined heavy doses of nostalgia with out-of-the-box activations like securing naming rights to a Nascar Xfinity Series race in March, which it called the Roseanne 300, ABC’s marketing strategy for The Conners is focused on enigmatic teases that feature the show’s stars and iconic imagery like the Conner family afghan—but reveal nothing about how Barr’s character will be written out of the spinoff—”to drive anticipation and fuel the curiosity surrounding the show,” said ABC marketing chief Rebecca Daugherty. “We leaned into ‘what’s next’ for the Conners.”

Once the show is off and running (here’s our review of the first two episodes), ABC hopes that audiences respond to The Conners just as strongly as they did to Roseanne’s return last spring. Many of the storylines the writers had wanted to cover in the revival’s second season—like the work struggles of Dan (John Goodman) and Darlene’s (Sara Gilbert) life as a single mom—“still remain very topical and relevant in this new iteration,” said Dungey. “We got into this because we wanted to shine a light on a segment of the American population that hadn’t been focused on a lot lately, the working-class American family. And we’re going to still be able to tell those stories, which feels great.”

This story first appeared in the October 15, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.