ABC got what it wanted, and what it deserved, from ‘Roseanne’

How to get standout ratings and eat we-did-the-right-thing cake, too.

Actress Roseanne Barr attends the Disney ABC Television TCA Winter Press Tour on January 8, 2018, in Pasadena, California. CREDIT:  VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images
Actress Roseanne Barr attends the Disney ABC Television TCA Winter Press Tour on January 8, 2018, in Pasadena, California. CREDIT: VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

Why did the Roseanne reboot happen?

Amid the show’s cancellation, prompted by a characteristically racist tweet sent by its star Roseanne Barr, it’s worth returning to the origin story. Because like the show itself, Roseanne Barr sharing racist tweets — along with a smattering of hate-fueled, unhinged conspiracy theories about things like “Jewish mind control” — was not new.

It began, as the New York Times reported, when ABC executives met the morning after the 2016 election “to determine what Donald J. Trump’s victory meant for the network’s future.”

From the Times:

“We looked at each other and said, ‘There’s a lot about this country we need to learn a lot more about, here on the coasts,’” Ben Sherwood, the president of Disney and ABC’s television group, said in an interview.

They began asking themselves which audiences they were not serving well and what they could do to better live up to the company name — the American Broadcasting Company. By the meeting’s end, they had in place the beginnings of a revised strategy that led the network to reboot a past hit centered on a struggling Midwestern family, a show that had a chance to appeal to the voters who had helped put Mr. Trump in the White House.

Sure, sounds good. But what does that actually mean? “A chance to appeal to the voters who had helped put Mr. Trump in the White House.” Okay, but… which voters?

The 52 percent of white women who, a year after the election, were already regretting their decision? The “white, Christian and male voters” who, as the New York Times recently reported, “turned to Mr. Trump because they felt their status was at risk“?

Or was ABC talking about the far-right? The voters responsible for the resurgence of hate crimes in the U.S., who delight in racist violence, who marched on Charlottesville with tiki torches in their hands and swastikas on their arms? The voters who traffic in racist, xenophobic conspiracy theories and flocked to Trump, a candidate who jump-started his political career by peddling the racist lie that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States? Trump, who denigrated immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and women in the most unprintable of terms for the duration of his campaign and continues to do so and will — spoiler alert! — probably not deviate from this practice for the rest of his life.

Because a person could argue that perhaps this final category — the people who voted for Trump because of his consistently racist and xenophobic worldview, not in spite of it — is best left unserved by the American Broadcasting Company, and certainly should not get to claim the euphemistic mantle of “Heartland viewers.”

Yet it is exactly that demographic ABC was indulging with its Roseanne reboot, which had as its centerpiece a woman who, as Hank Stuever writes at the Washington Post, “acquired or developed some opinions that a few people, sadly, may agree with, but that everyone should find appalling” in the years since the original Roseanne went off the air.

Here is how ABC President Channing Dungey — who, incidentally, is the first African American woman to lead a major network — explained the thinking behind the Roseanne reboot:

“We had spent a lot of time looking for diverse voices in terms of people of color and people from different religions and even people with a different perspective on gender. But we had not been thinking nearly enough about economic diversity and some of the other cultural divisions within our own country. That’s been something we’ve been really looking at with eyes open since that time.”

That says it all, doesn’t it? Dungey talked about economic diversity as if it is somehow mutually exclusive from other kinds of diversity. As if in order to address the concerns of the (white) working class, one would need to set aside the concerns of all other kinds of people. That those other types of diversity — racial, religious, gender — had gotten enough attention. And look, it was under Dungey’s reign that ABC cast its first (and, to date, only) black Bachelorette. Then again, ABC also pulled an episode of black-ish that addressed the NFL and kneeling-as-protest during the national anthem. ABC giveth, and ABC taketh away.


Though apparently it makes no difference whatsoever to put this fact into the universe over and over again: Data has debunked the myth that lower-income Americans voted for Trump. More Americans earning under $30,000 and under $50,000 a year voted for Hillary Clinton.

But fine, okay, sure: ABC wants to create more television shows about the lives of working class Americans. They can, and they should! And with Fresh off the Boat, they’re already on their way — but that would require believing it is possible to check the racial diversity and economic diversity boxes simultaneously.

ABC can join their network peers like CBS, which airs Mom, or NBC, home to Superstore, or Fox, with the animated Bob’s Burgers. Or it could look to the ranks of the CW, which airs the uniformly excellent Jane the Virgin, and FX, which airs the astonishing Atlanta, and HBO for Insecure, and Showtime, where Shameless is entering its ninth season.

It would be especially wise for ABC to look to Netflix, which is enjoying a multi-cam revival of its own with the widely-adored One Day at a Time from TV icon Norman Lear, and which recently won away ABC’s powerhouse Shonda Rhimes, who spent 15 years cranking out smash hits for the network: Grey’s AnatomyScandal, and How to Get Away with Murder.


ABC clearly wants credit for this triumph of the righteous over the profitable. Dungey said Roseanne’s tweet was “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.” Disney CEO Bob Iger shared Dungey’s statement and seconded it, tweeting, “There was only one thing to do here, and that was the right thing.”

But there was more than one thing to do here. For instance, there was not endorsing Roseanne and her racist opinions by airing her show in the first place. ABC gets to have their standout ratings and eat their we-did-the-right-thing cake, too. Who says you can’t have it all?

If the issue is that Roseanne’s tweet was, as Dungey said, “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values,” are audiences to take it that the vile things Roseanne had said publicly before the reboot was picked up were not abhorrent or repugnant, that they were consistent with ABC’s values? Her Twitter feed has been lousy with hate speech for years, a place where she spewed racist conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic nonsense. The Valerie Jarrett tweet wasn’t even the first time Roseanne had compared a black woman to an ape. In 2013, she did the same thing to Susan Rice, who served as President Obama’s national security advisor.

There is literally nothing surprising about the tweet that led to Roseanne‘s cancellation: Not its content, not its tone, not her after-the-fact insistence that it was a “joke” brought to you by Ambien. (Which the makers of Ambien, hilariously, deny.)  It was not a plot twist. It was not a surprise. Not to anyone who has paid any attention to Roseanne over the past decade, and certainly not to the ABC executives were cracking jokes about Barr’s tweets at the network upfronts not two weeks ago

As for ABC’s attempt to demonstrate compassion for working-class Americans, it looks like Roseanne‘s writers and crew are all out of a job, and they don’t even know if they’ll get severance pay. For whatever it’s worth, Roseanne tweeted that she’d like “to apologize to the hundreds of people, and wonderful writers (all liberal) and talented actors who lost their jobs on my show due to my stupid tweet.”