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Trump country helps 'Roseanne' premiere deliver largest audience for a network sitcom in more than three years

Trump country helps 'Roseanne' premiere deliver largest audience for a network sitcom in more than three years
Roseanne Barr, left, and John Goodman appear in a scene from the reboot of "Roseanne," which pulled in 18.2 million viewers for its premiere. (Adam Rose / Associated Press)

A Trump-loving "Roseanne" is making the Nielsen ratings great again for ABC.

The 18.2 million viewers who on Tuesday night watched Roseanne Barr re-create her working-class matriarch character as a Trump supporter made it the second-most-watched scripted TV show of the season and the largest audience for a sitcom since September 2014.

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The big audience for ABC's reboot of the hit sitcom is another sign of how viewers are looking for familiar TV friends to help deal with uncertain times the country is experiencing from the daily frenzied reports coming out of the White House. Established names are increasingly valuable to TV networks that are struggling to get new shows exposed in an ever-crowded landscape of programming choices.

The strong premiere for the first two episodes of "Roseanne" also comes at a welcome time for ABC. Like its rivals, the Walt Disney Co.-owned network has been losing viewers to streaming options and even saw its most prolific producer, Shonda Rhimes, depart for Netflix last summer.

"Roseanne" is the latest success from an earlier age of prime time. For example, new versions of "Will & Grace" on NBC and the Netflix revival of "Full House" — under the name "Fuller House" — have both been renewed for new seasons. CBS has already announced plans to revive "Murphy Brown," its biggest hit comedy of the 1990s, for the fall.

Networks are probably scouring their libraries for other titles after seeing the Nielsen numbers for "Roseanne," which originally ran on ABC from 1988 to 1997.

"Today's world is stressful and unpredictable for a lot of people, and these shows represent a comfort and nostalgia with things from the past," said Neal Sabin, president of content and networks at Weigel Broadcasting, which runs the successful retro programming service MeTV. "There is less risk in doing something that's already been tested. A lot of the heavy lifting in getting people to know what these shows are about is done."

The reboot successes are all shows that aired in the 1990s and appeal to viewers who still prefer watching traditional television over streaming, Sabin said.

"These shows are not aimed at millennials," he said.

Like the movie business — in which franchises and familiar titles have long been a part of studio marketing strategies — the success rate of reboots is mixed. Fox's "The X-Files" has delivered modest ratings, and Showtime's "Twin Peaks" didn't draw many viewers outside of its cult following.

But even just having a familiar name can be seen as giving a show an edge when name awareness is difficult to establish among hundreds of viewer choices. It's why CBS (the home of the rebooted "Hawaii Five-0" and "MacGyver") has two pilots in the works for next season using established titles from the past — "Magnum P.I." and "Cagney & Lacey" — with completely new casts.

Preston Beckman, a former executive for Fox and NBC who now consults for the television industry, said more rebooted shows with reunited casts are likely to come out of the "Roseanne" success.

But he also believes the big ratings Tuesday reveal that Roseanne Barr's core audience is looking for scripted programming that reflects life outside the media bubbles of New York City and Los Angeles.

"She's talking to a white working-class audience," Beckman said. "What matters to them is family, hard work and faith. It's deeper than saying, 'People want to see reboots.'"

Notably, the "Roseanne" premiere performed particularly well in markets such as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Kansas City and St. Louis – all in Midwestern states that helped Trump win the 2016 election. Two of the 10 highest-rated markets for the show were in the politically deep-red state of Oklahoma.

The original "Roseanne" was praised for honestly portraying the travails of a working-class family and remained popular in syndication and on cable for years after it aired, underscoring the show's enduring appeal.

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The new version received significant public discussion ahead of the premiere because of Barr's unapologetic support for President Trump, which has been written into her character on the show.

The 18.2 million viewers who watched Tuesday topped the number for the final episode of the original series in May 1997 — 16.6 million — when the TV landscape was far less competitive. If the show's ratings hold up in subsequent episodes, it could become a weapon in ABC's prime-time lineup.

"It's great for ABC," Beckman said. "Now they have the hard job of figuring out how to exploit it. They should find more middle-America working-class comedies."

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

UPDATES:

3:40 p.m.: This article was updated to include reaction from analysts to the new "Roseanne" TV show.

This article was originally published at 9:05 a.m.

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