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!”)

The show’s sensational debut, along with Will & Grace’s solid return earlier in the season, sent rivals scrambling to line up revivals of their own. CBS has picked up Murphy Brown and Fox opted to bring back the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing, which ABC canceled last May, with that network’s execs saying they were “emboldened” by Roseanne’s robust ratings. “I’m just excited to think that people are going to see shows they enjoy on TV again, that you can watch with your family and with your grandkids, like I do,” says Barr of the revivals. “I’m happy for that, because that’s been missing for awhile.”

The iconic afghan from the Conner family’s couch has returned—and was a key element of the marketing campaign.
Scott Witter for Adweek

For ABC, these past two euphoric months are a validation of the company soul-searching that began among Sherwood and his top execs the morning after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 presidential election. If Trump’s win showed that Hollywood was out of touch with “mainstream America,” recalls Sherwood, “as ABC—America’s Broadcasting Company—what is our responsibility to reflect what’s just happened on our airwaves?”

Those discussions led to several research projects, through which ABC “began to develop some ideas about how perhaps inclusion doesn’t just mean Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish. Maybe inclusion also means reflecting the working poor in America, and the middle of America where there is daily struggle,” says Sherwood.

Meanwhile, the idea of a Roseanne revival suddenly ignited in March 2017 when costar John Goodman guested on The Talk, and told co-host Sara Gilbert, who had portrayed the Conner’s younger daughter, Darlene, that he’d be open to a reunion. “I had started thinking about it a few weeks before he was on, but I didn’t anticipate that everyone would want to do it,” says Gilbert, who did double duty as an executive producer on the revival. “So I was thinking, what version can we do if just some people want to do it? And when he said he would do it, it occurred to me that everybody would.”

Barr was interested, too, but worried “whether I could do it at my age, if I had the energy for it,” she says. To that end, she enlisted Gilbert, who had set the wheels in motion by wrangling all their castmates, to run interference with the network and studio and fight the battles on behalf of the show that Barr famously waged during Roseanne’s original run. “I wanted just to be free to do what I do best,” says Barr. Explains Gilbert, “She gets to focus on the creative parts more and not have to worry about the other parts.”

As the revival quickly gained steam last spring, with Netflix a likely destination, Sherwood pleaded directly to Roseanne executive producer Tom Werner, whose company Carsey-Werner owns the show. “Every fiber of my being wanted to resist Roseanne going to Netflix,” he says. “I said, ‘Roseanne belongs at eight o’clock on Tuesday night on ABC, with the full force of the ABC television network behind it. While all kinds of changes are taking place throughout our industry, one thing remains true: Broadcast is still the only way into 125 million homes.” His pitch, along with a lucrative offer (“we stretched to get it,” says Sherwood) won over Werner and the other producers. “We wanted to have a place that all viewers could watch us, because our show is supposed to appeal to everyone, and not everyone has the means to have a streaming service,” says Gilbert.

One of the only early bumps in the road came during the cast’s awkward appearance at last May’s ABC upfront. “The chemistry on the stage was nonexistent,” says Betty Pat McCoy, svp, managing director and director of investment, GSD&M. Between that and concerns about what the revival would look like, “I do think people were a little skittish. … Boy, did I call that wrong!”

Despite what marketers thought at the time, “we knew we were going to have a hit on our hands,” says Ferro. But even so, she admits, “there wasn’t any rush to buy it” in last year’s upfront, as buyers focused more on the network’s fall slate and the Oscars.

ABC marketing chief Rebecca Daugherty built anticipation ahead of the March premiere with a nostalgia-themed campaign that played up two iconic elements from the original series—the family’s afghan-draped couch and Barr’s infectious laugh—which were featured on everything from New York subways to SXSW pedicabs to rigged-for-audio L.A. bus benches. After its market research showed that Roseanne resonated with Nascar fans, ABC secured naming rights to the Nascar Xfinity Series race on March 17, which it called the Roseanne 300, and featured co-star Michael Fishman (who plays son D.J.) as the honorary grand marshal. “What I loved most about that is they broadcast it on our competitor. So when you’re watching Fox Sports 1, you’re seeing banners for Roseanne,” says Daugherty.

As the show’s writers got down to work, they focused on “what’s going on now in the world that would affect a working-class family in the Midwest,” says executive producer and co-showrunner Bruce Helford. They also decided that the first episode would tackle how the 2016 election had divided the country, and many of its families, between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters. “It would have been the elephant in the room if we hadn’t dealt with it, because it was such a big part of what was going on with working-class America,” says Helford. “We thought, let’s see what happens when a family has that divide within it, because it’s happening to families all over America.”

That election-fallout premiere launched hundreds of think pieces (“regardless of the position that anybody took about anything, it was great to see a really intelligent discussion about the effect of media on American life,” says Helford), and Trump even called Barr—a longtime, vocal Trump supporter—to congratulate her on the show’s big debut. “It was very trippy to get a phone call that said, ‘Hold please for the president of the United States,’” says Barr. “He was very impressed with the ratings. He’s very into ratings.” Jokes Gilbert, who is on the other side of the political spectrum, “He won’t be calling me.”

None of the season’s other episodes—which tackled topics like opioid abuse, healthcare and single parenting—was as overtly political as the premiere, though Barr insists that “our show is always political, even if people don’t see it that way.” Elaborates Gilbert, “We don’t need to be talking about candidates to be political. If we’re talking about a working-class family that can’t pay for their pills or that is dealing with a little boy who likes to wear a dress, we’re talking about it in another way.”

ABC execs reject the notion that Roseanne is successful only because it appealed to Trump voters. “The show is definitely holding up a mirror to a segment of the audience that has not felt well represented on television. But we wouldn’t have such robust members if we didn’t have a lot of people watching,” says Dungey, noting that “the struggles between parents and kids is endless and constant and always relatable, no matter what family you find yourself in.” Ferro concurs: “You can’t do that number just by going after one segment of the market. You have to do that by being broad.”

Any remaining buyer hesitancy about the show, or Barr’s personal politics and her occasionally volatile Twitter feed, evaporated once those huge premiere numbers came in. “As soon as we started seeing those numbers, I think the broadness of the reach killed any worries that they have,” says McCoy of her clients.

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

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