The Real ‘Roseanne’ Effect: How It Could Energize Market for TV Comedies

roseanne Reboot BTS
Courtesy of ABC

The morning after “Roseanne” made its return to television, ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey opened an email containing Nielsen’s metered-market ratings — the day’s first indicator of how the previous night’s primetime broadcast offerings were received. What she saw did not make sense.

“I looked at the numbers and I thought, ‘That can’t be right,’” Dungey told Variety. “I honestly was floored. I thought that it was a typo and how can that be.” She remained in disbelief until shortly after 8 a.m., when the fast-national numbers arrived, bringing what happened into focus. “I was like, this is actually real. This is really real.”

“Roseanne” averaged a 5.2 live-plus-same-day rating in the important 18-49 demo and 18.4 million total viewers — both figures higher than those of any other scripted broadcast program this season on a non-Super Bowl night, and better than the family comedy’s original series finale did 21 years ago.

The numbers have only continued to climb in the days since: The program scored the biggest total DVR lift for any telecast on any network after three days of delayed viewing.

Much of the analysis that followed focused on the show’s politics: Star Roseanne Barr is an eager champion of debunked right-wing conspiracies, and the premiere’s storyline hinged on her character’s support for President Donald Trump. And since the 2016 presidential election, television programmers have been working to find ways to reach working-class whites who voted for Trump. The success of “Roseanne” only reaffirmed those efforts. But looking ahead to 2018-19, “Roseanne” may be a harbinger of a less titillating, more significant programming shift — the revitalization of the broadcast comedy after years of emphasis on drama.

This season, three new comedies — CBS’ “Young Sheldon” (3.8 in the demo, 17.2 million viewers), NBC’s “Will & Grace” (3.0, 10.2 million) and “Roseanne” — paint a far stronger picture for broadcast comedy than in seasons past. They not only outperformed in the demo the highest-rated new comedy premiere of 2016-17, CBS’ “Kevin Can Wait” (2.6, 11.1 million), and of 2015-16, CBS’ “Life in Pieces” (2.6, 11.3 million), but also did better than this season’s top new drama, ABC’s “The Good Doctor” (2.2, 11.2 million).

“I’m encouraged by what’s happened here, and in terms of what it means for broadcast in general,” said Dungey, whose comedy lineup — which includes “Modern Family,” “Black-ish” and “The Goldbergs” — boasts more solid performers than most competitors. “We’re going to continue to develop strong comedies here at ABC.”

ABC has 10 comedy pilots in development. Counting straight-to-series orders, CBS has eight, NBC has seven and Fox has six — all on par with last season. With upfronts just two months away, the “Roseanne” factor will have no impact on pilots being shot. But it could affect what ultimately moves to series. Both “Roseanne” and “Will & Grace” are multicams, which studios love because they still have value in the shrinking but lucrative off-network syndication market, but networks have struggled mightily to find success with the format. Only CBS has been able to maintain a robust multicam brand with shows such as “Mom” and “Kevin Can Wait,” but even it has failed to launch an outsize hit in the subgenre in recent years.

“What I’m excited about with ‘Roseanne’ is we have struggled a bit to get a multicam to succeed,” Dungey said. “It makes me really happy that that’s a multicam that is working for us.”

The other factor operating in favor of this season’s freshmen comedy standouts is that they are not true freshmen. “Roseanne” and “Will & Grace” are revivals of two of the most successful comedies in television history. Warner Bros.-produced “Young Sheldon” is a prequel to another hit, “The Big Bang Theory.”

“We’re very lucky to have a fan base that is so invested in the character of Sheldon that they’re curious about his childhood in East Texas,” said “Young Sheldon” showrunner Steve Molaro.

Reboots, particularly in the comedy genre, are a hot trend. CBS has given a straight-to-series order to a revival of “Murphy Brown” for next season. Speculation about new installments of “Mad About You,” “Home Improvement,” “Married With Children” and “Last Man Standing” has persisted.

Such efforts may not represent the freshest thinking in TV, but they could enable broadcast networks to build new comedy blocks or reinvigorate struggling ones, something they have largely failed to do recently. The “Roseanne” premiere had a powerful lead-in effect, boosting “Black-ish” to a ratings season high and new comedy “Splitting Up Together” to a good showing.

But execution remains important. Cautions media consultant Brad Adgate: “The shows have to be good. Otherwise the viewers will just leave. The new shows have to work with the lead-in.”