Who would have thought a sitcom that premiered in 1988 would help rescue the ABC television network?
Welcome to 2018.
The Walt Disney Co. broadcast network on Tuesday celebrated its successful reboots of “Roseanne” and the singing competition show “American Idol” with hundreds of advertisers who flocked to the David Geffen Hall in New York City for a peek at ABC’s new fall schedule.
Nielsen ratings released earlier in the day showed that ABC is distancing itself from its cellar-dweller days. ABC, which has finished the last few TV seasons in third or fourth place among viewers ages 18 to 49, is tied with CBS and Fox for second place in the coveted demographic for the current TV season. NBC continues to lead the pack.
Much of the credit goes to “Roseanne,” whose success has surprised some analysts. The show, which showcases a struggling working-class family, has averaged more than 19 million viewers an episode, outpacing “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS.
“The last time we had the No. 1 show was 24 years ago,” said Ben Sherwood, president of Disney/ABC Television Group. “If anyone came to play a drinking game for how many times we mention ‘Roseanne’ — you’re welcome.”
The ABC sitcom, starring Roseanne Barr, is jockeying with NBC’s acclaimed family drama “This Is Us” for the crown as the highest-rated scripted show among 18- to 49-year-olds this season. In addition, ABC launched the season’s most popular new drama, “The Good Doctor.”
ABC and other networks are grappling with sweeping changes in the TV industry, including the loss of TV show hit-makers to Netflix. Media companies including Disney are aggressively searching for ways to compete against Netflix and other tech giants such as Amazon.com, Google and Facebook.
Disney has offered $52.4 billion to buy much of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox company, including the FX and National Geographic cable channels, along with the prolific 20th Century Fox television and movie studios.
For Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger, one of the prime motivations to buy the Fox assets is to quickly bulk up ABC’s production capabilities at a time when owning TV shows is important.
ABC has struggled over the years to create blockbuster shows beyond those produced by Shonda Rhimes, who announced last year that she was leaving her longtime ABC Studios home to join Netflix. For example, “The Good Doctor” originated at Sony Pictures Television, which co-produces the show with ABC. Returning sitcom “The Goldbergs” also is a Sony production, and “Modern Family,” which has played on ABC for nine seasons, hails from 20th Century Fox Television.
Disney needs rights to shows to stream them on its digital entertainment platforms, including a Disney-branded streaming service set to launch next year. Should Disney succeed in acquiring the Fox properties, the Burbank entertainment giant also would gain the majority stake in streaming service Hulu. (Cable giant Comcast Corp., which owns NBCUniversal, is expected to bid for the same Fox properties that Disney wants to buy.)
But ABC executives haven’t been waiting for the Fox acquisition to try to up their game. The network made an expensive bet this season to bring back “American Idol,” a hit show for the Fox network for more than a decade. On ABC, the show has been averaging about 10 million viewers an episode.
“Having ‘American Idol,’ such a beloved show, added eyeballs to the network,” said Lisa Herdman, a senior vice president of the Santa Monica advertising agency RPA, who manages ad buys for national video platforms. “And then, along came ‘Roseanne.’ Who in the heck knew it would be so big?”
ABC has ordered 13 episodes of “Roseanne” for next season. The show, Herdman said, might have helped fill a hunger for programming that features characters from Middle America.
“We are seeing real advantages for programming for Middle America,” Herdman said. “Sometimes programmers — and advertisers — get stuck in our own lives on the two coasts, and we are not reflective of the rest of the country. But we don’t want to do ourselves a disservice by neglecting this audience.”
Cultural clashes have been a major topic even before Donald Trump’s campaign to become president and have continued since. Families bickering among themselves over Trump became a plot point in the first episode of the “Roseanne” reboot.
“One of the things we have continued to try to do as a network is to be as diverse and inclusive as possible,” ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey told reporters during a conference call before the network’s presentation to advertisers. “We look to be diverse and inclusive from a racial perspective, from a gender perspective, from a religious perspective and also from an economic perspective.”
“Roseanne,” she said, focuses on a family dealing with economic constraints, which differs from several other ABC comedies, such as “black-ish” and “Modern Family,” in which the families represent those in a higher income bracket.
However, the network has expressed some concern that Barr’s outspoken support of Trump might turn off viewers who dislike the president. As the season went on, political themes dissipated as the show delved into “everyday trials and tribulations that this family faces, but still brings them together,” Dungey said.
Next season, the show will move further “away from politics and [be] more focused on family,” Dungey said.
Like “Roseanne,” the singing competition “American Idol” and ABC’s perennial favorite, “Dancing With the Stars,” all play well in the heartland.
“Network schedules should reflect the variety of tastes and trends in the country,” said Garth M. Tiedje, a senior vice president at the ad-buying firm Horizon Media.
The trick, he said, is striking a balance with different programming to engage a mass audience. “The power of shows such as ‘Roseanne’ and ‘black-ish’ rests in their ability to creatively appeal far beyond their base targets,” Tiedje said.
Despite its ratings gains, ABC has a ways to go. It has averaged a prime-time audience of 6.1 million viewers, which is less than NBC and CBS, both of which average more than 9 million a night in the current season, according to Nielsen.
ABC will program 10 comedies every week in the fall, spread out across three nights. The second revival season of “Roseanne” will be paired on Tuesday with the single-camera comedy “The Kids Are Alright,” which follows a working-class family in the 1970s. It will be joined by the new drama “The Rookie,” in which Nathan Fillion’s character decides to leave his small town to join the Los Angeles Police Department, becoming the force’s oldest rookie.
Much of the Wednesday comedy block will return and will help launch “Single Parents,” a comedy from “New Girl” creator Liz Meriwether about a group of single parents who lean on one another. The new drama “A Million Little Things,” about a group of friends trying to fully live after the death of one of their own, will cap off the night.
ABC’s other comedy veterans, “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Speechless,” will move to Fridays in the 8 p.m. hour. They’ll hold court alongside game show “Child Support” and “20/20.”
ABC embarks on a new season without Rhimes, the creative force behind such shows as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.” She is ending her 15-year tenure at ABC Studios for a rich, multiyear deal at Netflix.
But ABC isn’t dismantling its version of Shondaland, the name of Rhimes’ production company, from its prime-time lineup just yet. This fall, three hourlong dramas created or produced by Rhimes will continue to fill Thursday nights: “Grey’s Anatomy”; a “Grey’s” spinoff, “Station 19”; and “How to Get Away With Murder.”
On deck for later in the season are returning series “For the People” and “Agents of Shield,” as well as reality offerings “American Idol” and “The Bachelor.” New series launching during midseason include “The Fix,” “Whiskey Cavalier” and “Grand Hotel.”