ABC News isn’t the network’s only program that will be broadcast live during the New Hampshire primary results.
Its sitcom The Conners is airing a live episode at 8 p.m. ET—the cast will perform it live again at 8 p.m. PT—that will incorporate ABC News’ coverage of the Democratic primary.
In the episode, called “Live from Lanford,” Mark (played by Ames McNamara), the son of Sara Gilbert’s Darlene, must watch the primary results for a school report.
The live episode is part of ABC’s efforts to “bring some much-deserved swagger back to broadcast television,” as ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke explained last month. As part of its new network strategy, ABC will air at least one live or tentpole event every month to leverage the power of broadcast television over its streaming rivals.
Tonight’s live episode of The Conners is the second of ABC’s two big February events after the Oscars, which aired Sunday and drew a record low audience of 23.6 million.
The network used the Academy Awards telecast to promote The Conners, airing a live promo featuring the cast playing their Conners characters making fun of a family being filmed from behind on their TV, before slowly realizing they are seeing themselves.
“We are the last family who should be on live TV,” Lecy Goranson’s Becky quipped.
ABC has had great success with live sitcoms in the past year, airing two Live in Front of a Studio Audience specials last May and December, in which actors performed episodes of classic TV shows produced by Norman Lear (a third special is planned for May).
While ABC is looking to do more live and event programming, the idea for the Conners episode came not from the network but from executive producer Bruce Helford, who has “really wanted to do a live episode for a long time, and he’s wanted to tie it to an election night,” said Gilbert, who’s also an executive producer on the show.
Soon after the first Live in Front of a Studio Audience special aired last May, ABC’s Burke “got a call from [Conners executive producer] Tom Werner, who said, ‘So you’re into this live thing! We have an idea to do a live Conners. What do you think?’” he said. “And I went, ‘Duh. Yes!’ Who doesn’t want to see that incredible cast, who are all theater-trained and operating at the top of their game, do a live version of that show?”
The cast will perform the show live for both coasts, at 8 p.m. ET and then again at 8 p.m. PT, reacting to the latest news. “So it will shift a little bit based on which coast is watching,” Burke said. “The idea to do it on the night of the primary is so inspired, and to be able to work with ABC News—it’s going to be unlike any episode of comedy.”
While the network is mum on exactly how the ABC News reports will be incorporated into the episode, it’s a safe bet that the format will be similar to the live Oscars promo, with characters watching ABC News on their TV and then commenting on the election results. “It will be a version of that,” Burke said.
Helford first talked about a Conners live episode last season, but at that point producers were still too focused on getting the then-fledgling Roseanne spinoff up and running. Also, “I’ve always been too scared,” admitted Gilbert.
But going into Season 2, “I caved,” she said. “I felt like it would be an interesting opportunity for the show, and I felt like it might be a way to bring awareness to voting. So the positives just outweighed my fear and [Helford’s] enthusiasm—you don’t want to say ‘No’ to somebody too many times. I felt badly because he was so passionate about it. All the pluses just started to outweigh my personal anxiety around it and the cast’s anxiety around it.”
The cast is nervous despite having numerous live performances on their resumes: Many of them are Broadway vets (most notably Laurie Metcalf), John Goodman has been a Saturday Night Live staple for three decades, and Gilbert spent nine seasons doing live TV as a co-host of CBS’ The Talk. “We all have live experience,” said Gilbert, “and we’re all terrified.”
Gilbert’s biggest fear? “I don’t want to ‘go up’ on my lines,” she said. “The thought to me of, you go up on your line and you have no idea how to get back on track where you are in the scene—I shouldn’t even say it!”
Her nerves about tonight’s live episode aside, Gilbert said “there’s a lot less pressure this season” compared to The Conners’ first season in 2018-19.
After ABC had shockingly canceled its massively successful Roseanne revival in May 2018, following a racist tweet from Barr, Gilbert and the other producers worked with ABC to bring back a Barr-free spinoff that fall and prove the characters could continue without Roseanne Conner at the show’s center.
While The Conners’ ratings aren’t on the level of Roseanne’s revival numbers, the series is tied with Modern Family as ABC’s No. 1 comedy in the 18-49 demo.
“I feel so lucky that people have stuck with the show and that it’s been well received,” Gilbert said. “We’re just hitting our stride and figuring it out more and more, each episode.”
If tonight’s live Conners episode is a hit, ABC would likely be interested in another live episode down the line, but Gilbert isn’t ready to consider that yet. “Wow, you just turned my scary night into two scary nights!” she said. “I think I’ll just focus on this one and hope that we only do one.”