In the wake of Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016, ABC decided it needed a show that would appeal to Middle America. So, tapping into TV’s current nostalgia obsession, it went with a reboot of “Roseanne,” a popular show in the 1990s that made headlines for having a toxic work environment. The show’s star, comedian Roseanne Barr, threatened to quit, and one producer announced his exit by saying he was fleeing for “the relative peace and quiet of Beirut.”
In the reboot, Barr plays a Trump supporter — as she is in real life — and clashes with her family over their respective political views.
Off screen Barr clashes with other celebrities users over her controversial views, especially on social media.
The ratings for the premiere were jaw-dropping. A whopping 18 million viewers tuned in, and that number jumped to about 25 million with DVR-delayed viewing. Last week’s episode notched 15.2 million overnight viewers, a slight dip but still an outstanding number for a sitcom in 2018.
ABC immediately renewed the show for a second season last Friday. Then, mere hours later, Barr sent social media into a frenzy when she tweeted that Trump has “freed so many children held in bondage to pimps all over the world” — a debunked claim that has been circulating on far-right sites. Barr eventually deleted the tweet, but it was a stark reminder that the network had indefinitely tethered itself to an extremely controversial figure — and as a result of the show’s success, given her a very powerful megaphone.
“If this had happened five years ago, people may have laughed it off. But people are not laughing about this anymore,” said Bonnie Fuller, president and editor in chief of the entertainment website Hollywood Life. “There have been too many consequences from fake news and conspiracy theories.”
ABC declined to comment for this article, and according to industry experts, that’s the typical decision in the TV controversy playbook — there’s little to be achieved by executives saying anything other than, “We’re thrilled that America has welcomed the Conner family back into their homes.”
“They’re smart people over there [at ABC]. They knew. She was controversial the last time, so it’s not like they thought they were getting an angel,” said Preston Beckman, a veteran broadcast executive and media consultant who worked at NBC and Fox.
Beckman said that although ABC doesn’t have to make any excuses for Barr’s behavior, “there’s always a line you don’t want to cross.”
“Once you cross that line, there are consequences,” Beckman said. “But I think to her fans and her kind of going against the grain and not acting like a typical TV star is the reason why she’s popular with them. There’s a lot of similarities between her and our current president.”
Plus, history shows viewers don’t necessarily care about the behavior of stars off-camera.