‘Roseanne’ Revival’s Huge Debut Stuns Hollywood, Prompts Soul-Searching

Roseanne made a triumphant return Tuesday night, blowing past projections with a 5.2 adults 18-49 rating and 18.2 million total viewers for the debut of its revival, which remarkably drew 10% more viewers than the original series finale 21 years ago.

While nostalgia was expected to bring in eyeballs, no one predicted such a huge turnout on premiere night for the blue-collar family sitcom with a Donald Trump-supporting protagonist, especially among the younger demographic. But then, few predicted that Trump would become the Republican nominee and would win the presidential election when he first announced his candidacy.

Carsey-Werner

Both Trump and Roseanne were able to tap into the often overlooked and underserved working-class audience, especially the portion that holds mostly conservative views. Not surprisingly, the top TV markets where Roseanne delivered its highest ratings were in states handily carried by Trump in the election. No. 1 was Tulsa in Oklahoma, which Trump won with 65.3% of the vote. It was followed by Cincinnati, Ohio and Kansas City, Missouri. The only marquee city from a blue state in the Top 10 was Chicago at No. 5 — the area where the series is set. ABC focused some of its marketing efforts in the region with a preview of the revival at the 54th Chicago International Film Festival.

The top market of the country, New York, was not in the Top 20; No.2 Los Angeles was not in the Top 30. And yet, Roseanne delivered the highest demo rating for any comedy telecast in 3 1/2 years, since the fall 2014 season premiere of TV’s biggest comedy series of the past five years, The Big Bang Theory.

There no doubt was an element of nostalgia and curiosity about how the characters from the original series have changed and about the new generation of the Conners. But Roseanne went beyond that. Its youngest 18-49 viewers when the series originally aired on ABC from 1988-97 are now at the very top or outside of that ad-friendly demographic range, in which last night’s premiere posted a staggering 5.2 Live+same day rating with no lead-in. It came largely from new viewers who were children or not even born during Roseanne‘s initial run.

Somehow Roseanne transcended age, recruiting droves of young viewers for a show whose two leads, Roseanne Barr and John Goodman, are both 65, well outside of the 18-49 demo. It tapped into the zeitgeist of Middle America, tackling its economic problems — and political leanings — head-on. There was curiosity how Roseanne would address Trump, which the show did in the first episode. In an encouraging sign, the novelty did not wear off, with the second episode rating even higher than the opener.

ABC did a major marketing campaign for Roseanne, including a three-day stunt during SXSW in Austin that drew huge crowds, and a tie-in with NASCAR, which is hugely popular in the flyover states.

ABC

And then there was Barr. Always a firebrand, she did not shy away from controversy, flipping off Jimmy Kimmel and talking candidly about her political views while promoting the show, generating a slew of provocative headlines in the process.

That could’ve gone either way, possibly alienating viewers. But it worked, leaving many TV insiders shellshocked today by the magnitude of the revival’s ratings success that revealed the untapped potential of comedies that provide realistic portrayals of blue-collar America. What’s more, Roseanne did that while also making a social commentary, something rarely seen since All in the Family, Norman Lear’s 1970s classic that has long been rumored to get a reboot.

The TV business always has been reactionary, so when something works, others immediately look for ways to replicate it. ABC, NBC and CBS all have classic sitcom revivals featuring the original casts on deck with Roseanne, Will & Grace and CBS’ upcoming Murphy Brown.

Fox, which was on the revival forefront with dramas 24: Live Another Day, Prison Break and The X-Files, is the only major network without a sitcom re-do, so its executives likely will take a look at the library. Like Roseanne, Fox has a popular blue-collar sitcom in Married… with Children, but its two stars, Ed O’Neill and Katey Sagal, are on other comedy series, ABC’s Modern Family and CBS’ Superior Donuts, respectively. Also hard to pull off would be That ’70s Show or Malcolm in the Middle revivals with the original stars.

CBS also has a classic, hugely popular blue-collar family comedy in its library, Everybody Loves Raymond, though several of the Emmy-winning series’ celebrated cast members are no longer alive.

ABC

Meanwhile, if Roseanne continues to be a ratings juggernaut, ABC, which is close to renewing the revival for a second season, should look into bringing back its other big blue-collar sitcom hit of the 1990s, Home Improvement, which starred another open Trump supporter, Tim Allen.

ABC was strongly criticized by the right in May when it canceled Allen’s long-running sitcom Last Man Standing despite its strong viewership. It was a rare broadcast comedy with a central character who is a political conservative and devout Christian adhering to traditional American values that appeals to viewers in the Heartland.

At the time, producer 20th Century Fox TV unsuccessfully tried continuing the show elsewhere, including at Fox and CMT. It may now revisit those efforts.

With The Middle is going away, there is a vacuum in representing middle-class families on broadcast TV, and the success of Roseanne no doubt will help get more blue-color sitcoms on the air. We might see that happening as soon as next month when the broadcast networks pick their new series for next season out of the dozens of pilots currently in production.