Inside Roseanne’s Triumphant Return to TV

ABC snatched the revival away from Netflix and landed its first No. 1 series in 24 years

Roseanne's March 27 return had 18.2 million viewers.
Photographs by Scott Witter for Adweek; Prop styling by Edwin To

It only took a few moments for Disney-ABC’s upfront presentation last Tuesday to morph into a full-blown Roseanne Barr lovefest. With the surprise breakout success of ABC’s Roseanne revival less than two months earlier, the network felt as if it had won the lottery—ending up with the season’s No. 1 entertainment show among adults 18-49 for the first time in 24 years—and took great pleasure in reveling in its unexpected good fortune in front of the assembled buyers at New York’s Lincoln Center. “If anyone came to play a drinking game based on how many times we mention Roseanne, you’re welcome,” said Ben Sherwood, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group.

From opening the event with a surprisingly strong taped performance of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” in front of American Idol’s judges (“I was glad to be able to sing well in public. That’s taken me about 30 years to get over what happened before,” Barr told Adweek, referring to her infamously horrific rendition of the national anthem at a 1990 San Diego Padres game) to joking onstage that Sherwood is “the guy that really writes most of my tweets,” Barr could do no wrong in front of buyers and network execs. The adoration she and the cast have received since the premiere, says Barr, is “very gratifying.”

What a difference a year makes. During last year’s upfront presentation, buyers weren’t sure what to make of the Roseanne cast’s awkward appearance, and wondered whether ABC had made a mistake in bringing back the sitcom—about the blue-collar Conner family, struggling to make ends meet in fictional Lanford, Ill.—after a two-decade hiatus.

Scott Witter for Adweek

Network execs said they knew they had the goods, but not even they predicted the eye-popping ratings for the sitcom’s March 27 return. That night it pulled in 18.2 million viewers and a 5.2 rating in the 18-49 demo, making it the most-watched comedy telecast since an episode of The Big Bang Theory in September 2014, and out-rating the 16.6 million who turned into the show’s then-series finale in 1997. “I had no idea it would do the number that it did,” says Carrie Drinkwater, svp, group director of investment activation, MullenLowe’s Mediahub. “It’s amazing to see, because there was doubt it could ever happen again.” Those gargantuan numbers kept growing as multiplatform delayed viewing numbers came in, with the premiere’s demo rating rocketing to an 11.7 in live-plus-35 (see graph).

Then, as the season moved beyond its endlessly dissected political-themed premiere episode, much of the audience stayed around. Roseanne is the season’s No. 1 show in Nielsen’s most current ratings, averaging 19.0 million viewers an episode, and No. 2 in the 18-49 demo with a 5.4 rating, behind only Sunday Night Football. Its C7 rating among all entertainment programs on TV is a hefty 5.3, well ahead of second-place This Is Us, with a 3.7. More importantly, the show helped move ABC out of fourth place this season in the 18-49 demo, where it has languished for five of the past six seasons, and into a three-way tie for second place alongside CBS and Fox. After two consecutive upfront appearances in which ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey promised buyers that change was coming as she tried “to put the broad back in broadcast television, it does feel good,” she says. “It’s nice to be going into May with some momentum.”

Unsurprisingly, she’ll be bringing Roseanne back in the fall instead of waiting again for midseason. “We wanted to keep the momentum going and bring strength to our fall launch,” says Dungey—which was a move that Disney-ABC ad sales chief Rita Ferro also lobbied for as brands clamor for space on the Roseanne bandwagon. (However, someone might have forgotten to inform Barr of next season’s scheduling plan: “I’m going to air in the fall?” she responded, when Adweek asked her about the scheduling switch one day after ABC’s upfront. “I’m glad somebody fucking knows what’s going on!”)


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This story first appeared in the May 21, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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