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Why ABC had to cancel Roseanne

It’s not (just) because it was the right thing to do.

Roseanne ABC
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Roseanne was the No. 1 show on TV for the 2017-’18 TV season, as ABC’s various representatives never tired of reminding attendees of its recent upfront presentation to advertisers. It was a dominant cultural monolith.

And now it’s canceled — the highest-rated show ever to not return for a new season when it by all rights should have. (Most high-rated shows that don’t return reach the end of long runs and choose to close up shop on their own terms, as happened with Seinfeld, Cheers, and many, many others.) Star Roseanne Barr’s blatantly racist tweet about former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett was the nail in the show’s coffin, but the star’s conspiracy-obsessed, constantly-flirting-with-overt-racism Twitter feed was always a ticking time bomb. This was always going to happen. It just wasn’t expected to happen so quickly.

(A hopefully edifying sidebar: The previous bearer of the “highest-rated show to be canceled when it normally wouldn’t have been” title was CBS’s one-season sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie, which ran from 1972 to 1973, came in fifth place for that TV season, and was canceled because it depicted a Catholic woman marrying a Jewish man. Representatives of both faiths were offended by their respective representations — as well as the very idea of an interfaith marriage, which was held up as contrary to the teachings of both religions. This gives you a sense of how drastically the boundaries of the culture war have shifted in the intervening 45 years; conservative outrage led to the end of Bridget, but progressive outrage led to the end of Roseanne.)

From a moral and ethical standpoint, canceling Roseanne was the right call. But if morals and ethics were the only things at play, the show would have ended long ago — or wouldn’t have been revived in the first place. ABC had to have known that Barr’s Twitter feed would be a problem, and it’s telling how often the star has “left” Twitter (or turned her account over to her kids), only to get right back to it. Keeping Roseanne on the air meant managing Roseanne, and fans of both the original show and its revival surely knew there are few more difficult tasks in the world.

So there had to have been reasons for Roseanne’s cancellation beyond the moral and ethical ones. And believe it or not, I think you can make a really compelling business case for canceling the show as well.

Roseanne debuted huge and then promptly lost viewers

By the time of its finale, Roseanne had lost around half its viewership.

When Roseanne debuted in March 2018, its ratings were the TV story of the year. With 18 million viewers and a 5.1 rating among the 18- to 49-year-old viewers advertisers most care about, the show was pulling in the sorts of numbers network TV only dreamed about. Once viewers on DVR and streaming platforms were factored in, the number rose to more than 27 million viewers total. The series was quickly feted as a new gold standard for a hit sitcom, and was just as quickly renewed.

To be clear: A lot of the early ratings momentum was always going to leach away from the series, as it did with NBC’s Will & Grace and Fox’s The X-Files revivals, which both opened big and then quickly declined. The premieres of these revivals garner lots of curious viewers who want to see what an old show looks like in the 2010s but don’t particularly care to keep up week to week, or choose to watch later when they can binge the full season.

And Roseanne did see a similar downward trajectory. By the time its finale aired on May 22, it had lost almost half its live viewership (down to around 10.5 million viewers) and fully half its younger viewership (down to a 2.5 in the 18- to 49-year-old demo). And while we don’t yet have final streaming and DVR numbers for the finale, the trajectory in those numbers has followed a slightly less steep but similar decline.

But the numbers for the first Roseanne revival season were so big that it almost didn’t matter, and it certainly didn’t hurt that one of the main audiences still watching TV live (and, thus, still watching TV commercials live) is older, whiter, and more rural than the national average — both prime Trump voters and prime Roseanne viewers. Had the series held steady at 10.5 million viewers and a 2.5, it wouldn’t have been TV’s No. 1 show, but it would have been comfortably in the top 20 — and probably in the top five once DVR and streaming viewers were factored in.

But this isn’t really how TV works anymore. The best guess for what would happen to Roseanne in its second revival season is that its audience would continue to drift away, as happened with the second revival season of The X-Files, which struggled to move the needle, even though it was creatively much stronger than the first revival season.

There are so many different ways to watch — and monetize — TV now that even a Roseanne that halved its season one finale audience (going down to 5 million viewers and the low 1s in the demo) probably would have found a way to justify a spot on the lineup.

But that presumes a Roseanne that still draws healthy advertiser interest, which is to say it presumes a Roseanne whose star isn’t provoking outrage on social media every other week.

In the short term, canceling Roseanne makes very little sense. But in the long term, keeping Roseanne on the air made no sense.

Roseanne ABC

ABC doesn’t directly own Roseanne, which means that it doesn’t control all the eventual revenues from the program from sales to streaming companies, to international broadcasters, and so on. (You can read more about how this works here.)

Instead, the show is produced by the Carsey-Werner Company (its original production studio in the show’s 1988-’97 run) and Jax Media (which also produces Broad City, among others). Even if ABC got a cut of the show’s profits (as many broadcast networks do nowadays for shows their parent companies don’t technically own), it would be a small one. That’s an acceptable trade-off when the ratings are so huge that you know you’ll be making tons of money from advertisers, but it’s not when those ad dollars aren’t assured. (Because of this ownership situation, it’s not impossible that Roseanne could be revived elsewhere, but it would require such a specific set of circumstances that it seems incredibly unlikely.)

And though Barr had tweeted outrage-provoking things in the past, they were often shrouded beneath 17 different levels of conspiracy-mongering. To really get mad, you had to know, for instance, what “QAnon” meant, and many people are just never going to have the time to disappear down that particular rabbit hole. But the Jarrett tweet was immediate, virulently racist, and hard for even Barr’s supporters to deny as racist. It caused writer Wanda Sykes to leave the show even before its cancellation, and star Sara Gilbert (also a producer on the revival) to chastise Barr on Twitter.

But leave aside the advertiser of it all and think about this: At what point do you accept that Barr is going to keep tweeting things like this, turning off a growing portion of your audience, and if that continues to happen, soon only those who are watching to hear Barr say outrageously racist things will be around? When the show goes from the much more nebulous target audience of “people interested in considering the political divide in the Trump era” to the target audience of “hardcore racists,” what’s the damage not just to the show but to your network as a whole?

And then consider that ABC is the network of Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat and Shonda Rhimes’s assorted dramas, and the only network in broadcast TV history to be headed up by a black person (in this case, Channing Dungey). At a certain point, Barr’s Twitter feed doesn’t just hurt Roseanne. It hurts all those other shows by sharing space with them, and it scares off peddlers of new shows who might not want to share a network with a series whose star seems intent on chasing away everybody who isn’t already predisposed to laugh at racist tweets.

Canceling Roseanne lost ABC a bunch of ad dollars in the short term. Nothing it airs in that time slot in the fall is going to replicate what even the declining Roseanne managed, and the network has opened itself up to attacks on the front that it doesn’t care about conservatives or Trump voters or something similar.

But in the long term, canceling Roseanne was the only decision that made sense. At a certain point, ABC would have stopped being the American Broadcasting Company and would have become the broadcast network home of Roseanne Barr’s Twitter feed. And in a future when traditional networks are less important than untarnished brand names, that was a trade-off not worth making.

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