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Like Trump voters, “Roseanne” fans are more rural and richer than you thought

The key to understanding the show, like the 2016 election, is the audience's perception of itself, not actual demographics.

by Oriana Schwindt
Apr 1 2018, 12:56pm

Leslie Xia

ABC's "Roseanne" revival appears to be a success—no, not just a success, but the kind of old-school broadcast juggernaut not seen in years, especially not on ABC. The first two new episodes of the working-class sitcom in more than two decades drew in a massive total audience of 18.4 million Tuesday night and drew more younger viewers than most of its competitors combined. It was the biggest series premiere on broadcast TV in seven years, and it outdrew even its own series finale almost 21 years ago. ABC renewed it for another season of 13 episodes a mere three days after this premiere.

Naturally, as well, came the predictable, immediate claim of the new “Roseanne” as a blow against the elites by prominent conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh. The president of the United States called up creator Roseanne Barr to congratulate her with the same alacrity one calls up foreign leaders to congratulate them on winning elections.

Because, see, this time around, the formerly progressive Roseanne (played by Barr) is a Trump supporter.

All of the broadcast networks have been particularly conscious of the power of "Middle America" viewers these days. After the 2016 election, networks ordered plenty of military- or police-themed shows like "The Brave" (NBC) and "S.W.A.T." (CBS) and "SEAL Team" (CBS). ABC, home to a more inclusive set of comedies and dramas, viewed the reviving of "Roseanne" as a way to add what ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey referred to as "economic diversity" in an interview with the New York Times.

That move appears to have worked, for now. The top 10 markets for the new "Roseanne" episodes included Tulsa, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Buffalo, and Indianapolis.

"Roseanne" also ruled over the spaces between, in what are referred to by advertisers as "C and D" counties, the small towns that dot the landscape between Chicago and St. Louis, between Seattle and Spokane. It overdelivered in these counties, attracting nearly four times the share of that audience as ABC's last big comedy hit, "Modern Family," now does.

MAGA TV

Before we attribute those "Roseanne" numbers solely to rural, down-on-its-luck America, though, it's worth noting that "Roseanne" also outdelivered in households that make more than $75,000 a year. The key to understanding the show's initial burst of success, not unlike understanding the result of the 2016 election, lies in the audience's perception of itself, rather than its actual demographics.

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But what's appealing about the "Roseanne" revival is not just that Roseanne Conner is now a Trump supporter. The real appeal for a certain segment of the audience is that these first two episodes gave them a comfortable facsimile of their real lives while also not challenging any deeply held assumptions.

While most TV critics agreed that the two episodes we've seen were funny and well-produced, with stellar performances from the entire cast, several took issue with the show’s handling of certain issues.

“This is television trying to rediscover its relevance as an arena for broad dialogue”

In the premiere, Roseanne fights with her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), a Hillary Clinton supporter who nonetheless choked and voted for Jill Stein. "Jackie has become over-the-top clownish, to the point of ridicule," said Ethan Thompson, professor of Media and Cultural Studies at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. "Roseanne is still Roseanne, and Jackie is a joke and beyond quirky. You can laugh her off because she's quirky."

Another questionable moment revolves around Roseanne’s gender-fluid grandson. “Dan [John Goodman] comes around to his grandson, but if it came down to their tax dollars paying for gender reassignment, I have a feeling the character wouldn’t feel the same way,” said Hollis Griffin, assistant professor of communication at Denison University.

However, the family dynamic, specifically Roseanne and her sister's clashes, are an accurate reflection of what's happening in households all around the country. That sense makes for a good number of Americans who have felt themselves underserved by what's on their screens.

"Watching Roseanne fight with Jackie about Trump versus Hillary is more fun than it is seeing it on the news or doing it with our own families," Thompson said. "There really is a genuine sense that television doesn't articulate a variety of viewpoints, and how families are really like, in the way it used to."

Underserved audience

Consider the last big broadcast show that saw these kinds of numbers: Fox's drama "Empire." "Empire" debuted on Jan. 1, 2015, to a perfectly respectable rating in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic and 9.9 million total viewers, then built steadily to a total audience of 17.6 million and nearly double the 18-49 viewers for the finale of its first season.

"Roseanne" and "Empire" don’t have much in common, except that both are aimed at audiences that felt underserved.

For "Empire," that meant black Americans. For "Roseanne," that meant middle-aged white Americans who deem themselves working-class, or MAGA America.

"Roseanne" premiered in 1988 as a middle finger to the wave of yuppiedom and establishment feel-good TV. It was rewarded for its aggressive antipathy toward white-collar America by remaining in the top 10 highest-rated shows through its seventh season. It regularly beat "The Cosby Show" and "Cheers" in its first few seasons.

In an America currently defined by large groups of people who similarly want to flip off institutions that makes them feel excluded, or less-than, "Roseanne" acts as a safe channel for this impulse.

"That anti-establishment sensibility has in recent years become this conflation of progressivism with out-of-touch-ness and class difference," said Griffin. "It's this weird mix that equates progressivism with money, when in fact the conservative movement is really fueled by the same money they criticize."

But if the success of the "Roseanne" revival were as simple as catering to white Americans who feel left behind, as Rush Limbaugh asserted, we would have seen much higher ratings for shows like "Friday Night Lights," about a small West Texas town, or "Last Man Standing," which starred conservative-leaning actor Tim Allen and featured several conservative characters but was canceled by ABC after six seasons of average-at-best ratings.

Read: TV keeps rebooting '90s shows because everything is bad

The real test for "Roseanne" as a returning cultural touchstone isn't the ratings for its next few airings—most series, including revivals like NBC's "Will & Grace," premiere strong and then drop as much as 40 percent in their second outing. It's not even necessarily the number of similar shows we see pop up this fall, since the die has already been cast for this TV development season.

For Griffin, the real test lies further down the road. "This is television trying to rediscover its relevance as an arena for broad dialogue," he said. "The more generous part of me wonders if this is a place where we can trouble through and parse tensions and understand where people are coming from."

What will likely remain steady will be the portion of the "Roseanne" audience who consider themselves done wrong by the "elites" and the yuppies and the establishment, the portion that also soaks up commentary by Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Hannity, not unaware of this, responded enthusiastically to a tweet from Barr about hosting his show.

"dm me!" she wrote.

Cover image: Leslie Xia