The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The producers of the ‘Roseanne’ reboot want to change the conversation. Here’s why they’ll fail.

The producers hope to shape the national conversation. They overestimate their influence.

John Goodman and Roseanne Barr arrive March 23 at the Los Angeles premiere of “Roseanne” in Burbank, Calif. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
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Three decades after “Roseanne” debuted and 21 years after the finale aired, the television show about a white working-class family in a small Midwestern town has been revived as a topical comedy in the age of President Trump. Barr, a vocal supporter of the president, said the decision to have her character back Trump is an attempt to open an important dialogue. In the premiere, Trump-supporting Roseanne and her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), dressed in a pink hat and wearing a “nasty woman” T-shirt, argue to a standstill over politics and the 2016 election, eventually settling into their familiar strained-but-warm relationship.

“We’re hoping we can bring a kind of dialogue back [with the show],” said executive producer Bruce Helford. He pointed to earlier sitcoms as evidence of the political potential of television comedy: “America had no problem inviting Norman Lear’s shows into their homes as guests.” But Helford and Barr are no Lear, and the television industry of today is not what it was in the 1970s. While Trump has already congratulated Barr on the ratings for the premiere, the show will not be an answer to polarizing debates surrounding his presidency. Viewers have dramatically more options today, and Americans are far too divided for a show to reach an audience large and broad enough to shake up our politics and culture as Lear’s shows did.

When Lear and CBS introduced the United States to Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), the lovable but bigoted protagonist of “All in the Family” in 1971, television had never seen anything quite like him. Television sitcoms in the tumultuous 1960s had avoided political content, instead focusing on escapism. But “All in the Family” featured debates on issues including the Vietnam War, racial segregation, the emerging women’s liberation movement and Social Security. The chauvinistic and bigoted Bunker argued constantly with his daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), and son-in-law, Mike (Rob Reiner).

Within a year, the show reached No. 1, and by late 1972, Lear and his producer partner Bud Yorkin had three of the top four shows on television. Ratings mattered, because they allowed Lear the freedom to tackle political subjects without strict censorship from the networks’ standards and practices departments.

Lear took this opportunity seriously. He recognized that a variety of advocacy groups, special interest organizations and grass-roots movements were placing increasing demands upon television networks and shows. So he sought to preempt criticism and protests by opening up a dialogue with them.

He and his staff invited comments from activists, often incorporating their concerns into the show. The production company even held special advance screenings for advocacy groups and activists, both to placate any potential negative reactions and to position the show at the center of political debates. They also made a habit of lending copies of certain shows to a wide variety of corporations and organizations interested in using them to combat prejudice and educate on topics such as welfare, sexual assault and feminism.

This attentiveness, along with the show’s topical subject matter, allowed “All in the Family” to build a huge following. Commanding an audience of roughly a third of all households with a television set, the show had tens of millions of viewers and became a part of the national conversation. Americans debated the show around water coolers, in the pages of the New York Times and in academic journals. Politicians, labor unions and state and federal government agencies all attempted to use it for recruitment and fundraising.

In the 1972 and 1980 Democratic presidential primaries, candidates John Lindsay and Edward Kennedy ran ads featuring the endorsement of O’Connor in character as Archie Bunker. Even though Bunker was the most prominent example of the conservative silent majority Richard Nixon had envisioned being at the core of a new Republican coalition, these liberal Democrats understood that Bunker exemplified a crucial segment of the electorate, later known as Reagan Democrats. “Archie Bunker is a blue-collar person struggling to make ends meet […] he makes a very effective messenger for what we’re trying to say,” a Kennedy adviser explained in 1980.

The cast and creators of the show visited the White House, Democrats in the Senate praised it for combating prejudice, and the chairs from the Bunker living room were even donated to the Smithsonian as national treasures.

Bunker and “All in the Family” changed television by opening conversations in living rooms. But the show itself was the result of changes within the industry that would ultimately make its political impact difficult to replicate. Network television has always focused on ratings, which dictate advertising rates and revenue, and in the 1960s the hunt for the best ratings developed into the search for what an NBC executive called “the least objectionable programming.” By the 1970s, however, advances in audience measurements and advertising trends shifted the focus from attracting the largest total audience to luring the right demographics.

Marketers sought to reach younger, more affluent and more urbane viewers. New executives at CBS canceled long-running and popular shows with older, rural-based viewers in favor of shows meant to attract these preferred demographics — shows like “All in the Family,” with its political relevance and topical comedy.

By the time “Roseanne” hit the airwaves in 1988, technological advances and deregulation had ended the virtual monopoly the three big networks had enjoyed in the 1970s, ultimately making television shows even more focused on market segmentation. The emergence of cable television, home video and a fourth network, Fox, which debuted in 1986, had opened up a more competitive environment. Even the biggest hits could not dream of the ratings shows had enjoyed only a decade before.

“Roseanne” drew high ratings for its time, becoming a cultural phenomenon with its portrayal of working-class family life at a time when most shows focused on affluent families. At the end of its run, the New York Times noted it had played a “crucial role in defining social class.”

Still, illustrating the changes in the industry during the 1980s, it never even achieved the 24.9 average rating that “All in the Family” got in its final season in 1979. Since the 1990s, ratings for network television shows have only declined further as viewers have an ever-increasing array of options. In 2017, there were an estimated 487 scripted original series across broadcast television, cable and online streaming services. The most watched network show, CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory,” drew a rating less than half of “Roseanne” in the 1990s and about a third of “All in the Family.”

Reviving old favorites with an existing fan base reflects the television landscape today. Networks can’t dream of the hit ratings of the past, but they can try to reach narrow but loyal niche audiences. Indeed, with advertising spots describing the Conners as “the family that looks like us,” and Barr in interviews apparently equating the working class with the white working class, the new “Roseanne” is clearly trying to do just that.

Executives hope that the show snags viewers in the heartland — including Trump voters. Both the president and his son have praised the “Roseanne” revival, apparently viewing it as a representation of their base. Some conservatives, like Ben Shapiro, have been more skeptical because of the socially inclusive nature of the Conner family — Roseanne’s sister is gay, and one of her grandchildren is gender-fluid while another is black. But the right predominantly cheered the premiere and its strong ratings.

ABC has been careful not to give Barr too much leeway, at times shutting down interviews before they become too political or controversial, and the actress herself has been deleting old contentious tweets. As the recent cancellation of an episode of the ABC sitcom “Black-ish” dealing with NFL players’ silent protests of police brutality demonstrated, networks today hope to avoid wading into the political thicket in a way that might alienate one side — limiting producers in a way Lear was not.

With the electorate deeply divided both in politics and entertainment, attempting to position a show at the heart of the political conversation as Lear did in the 1970s would risk backlash and even boycotts. In this environment, even if “Roseanne” sustains the premiere’s ratings success, it will prove impossible to move the national conversation in the way “All in the Family” did in the 1970s. Archie Bunker managed to resonate with a broad swath of Americans in one way or another — gaining political relevance due to a considerable audience and Lear’s willingness to engage. In today’s polarized world, however, “Roseanne” will only further divide those turning in.