ABC's Reach for Trump Fans With ‘Roseanne’ Ends in Grief

(Bloomberg) -- Canceling “Roseanne” after just two months throws a wrench into ABC’s plan to turn the network around by reaching out to conservative viewers.

The Walt Disney Co.-owned broadcaster dropped the show, the most-viewed new program on television, after series star Roseanne Barr described former Obama administration adviser Valerie Jarrett as the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Planet of the Apes.” Jarrett is black and is not a follower of Islam. Barr, 65, apologized and said she would stop posting on Twitter, but by then her remark had gone viral.

ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey, the first African-American to lead a major broadcast network, canceled the show after conferring with Disney Media Networks Co-Chairman Ben Sherwood on Tuesday morning and discussing it with Disney CEO Bob Iger. Advertisers, often a powerful voice in such decisions, didn’t yet have a chance to weigh in.

“There was only one thing to do here,” Iger said on Twitter shortly after the announcement. “And that was the right thing.”

“Roseanne,” a revival of the long-running hit from the 1990s, drew almost 19 million viewers a week. It was part of a broader strategy at ABC, which included bringing back “American Idol,” to climb out of the cellar by targeting more male, lower-income and middle-American viewers in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Under Paul Lee, the previous entertainment president, ABC focused on women and minorities -- with shows such as the political drama “Scandal” and the comedy “Black-ish.” When Dungey took over in February 2016, ABC was still last with the viewers who advertisers target.

As of Tuesday night, Barr had yet to make good on her vow to stop using Twitter. She posted an apology to Jarrett, calling the offending tweet insensitive and tasteless. “I am truly sorry -- my whole life has been about fighting racism,” Barr wrote.

In an interview with MSNBC, Jarrett said that Iger called her to apologize personally before the cancellation announcement. She hinted that while Trump has contributed to a more heated racial environment, individuals also needed to make a stand.

“Tone does start at the top, and we like to look up to our president and feel as though he reflects the values of our country,” she said. “But I also think that every individual citizen has a responsibility too, and it’s up to all of us to push back. Our government is only going to be as good as we make it be.”

Sister Act

On “Roseanne,” Barr’s character, a Trump supporter, sometimes argued with her onscreen sister, played by Laurie Metcalf, who expressed liberal views. It was an instant hit with the audience Dungey hoped to attract.

Conservative commentators, such as Fox News’ Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, praised the show after its March debut. Trump called Barr to congratulate her and talked up the program at a rally in Ohio.

ABC finished the season that ended this month in third place in prime time among the coveted 18- to 49-year-old viewers. In year-over-year performance, the network lost just 2.4 percent of its audience -- a pretty good year in the age of cord cutting and streaming.

Financial Hit

Disney will take a financial hit as a result of the cancellation. For next season, ABC committed to 13 shows with potential ad revenue of as much as $60 million, according to Kantar Media. Reruns would have brought in more. Advertisers paid an average of $167,000 for a 30-second spot on “Roseanne” in April, according to Standard Media Index. That was about 54 percent above the average cost of a sitcom ad on the major networks. About 200 people worked on the show.

Other businesses joined Disney in distancing themselves from Barr. Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Network, TV Land and CMT pulled their reruns of the original “Roseanne.” The talent agency ICM Partners, meanwhile, dropped Barr as a client.

Burbank, California-based Disney has found itself the target of conservative critics in the past. A+E Networks, which the company half-owns, briefly suspended Phil Robertson, a star of the hit “Duck Dynasty,” when he made crude comments about gay people in an interview. After conservative groups started online petitions and mailed rubber ducks to the company, the suspension ended in a little more than a week.

ESPN Drama

Disney’s ESPN sports network was criticized by Trump and other conservatives after “SportsCenter” co-host Jemele Hill called the president a “white supremacist” on Twitter. The network ultimately suspended Hill before relegating her to an ESPN-related website.

While no prominent conservatives are defending Barr, some have turned their sights on ABC.

On Fox News Tuesday, Herman Cain, a former Republican presidential candidate who is also African-American, said he found Barr’s comment “despicable,” but questioned ABC’s motives for killing the show so abruptly. Broadcast network coverage of Trump has been mostly negative, he said.

“Because her show defended some of the conservative principles and conservative results,” Cain said. “I just suspect personally that this gave them a very visible excuse to cancel the show.”

Many of the conservative viewers who flocked to “Roseanne” may consider the show’s cancellation a betrayal, according to Eric Schiffer, chairman of Reputation Management Consultants, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm.

“It backfired,” Schiffer said. “Conservatives are going to view this as an ambush by the liberal media.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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