ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey, currently on vacation with family, had 18 million reasons to celebrate Wednesday morning.
On Tuesday night, the Disney-owned network made a statement about the strength of broadcast television when its heavily hyped Roseanne revival launched with back-to-back episodes that attracted a whopping 18.1 million total viewers and an impressive 5.1 rating in the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demographic. In total viewers, that represents the highest-rated scripted show in the past few seasons — since peak Empire — as well as the highest-rated sitcom broadcast in more than three years. What’s more, the viewership was higher than Roseanne’s May 1997 (former) series finale.
A deeper dive into the ratings reveal that the comedy about the working-class Conner family (with all of its original stars reprising their roles) overperformed in Middle America. That helps support Dungey’s December 2016 comments that ABC hadn’t paid enough attention to some of the “true realities of what life is like for everyday Americans” in its programming.
Below, Dungey talks with The Hollywood Reporter about Roseanne‘s impressive bow, plans for season two (its 11th overall) and how the success will influence development going forward.
Congratulations on the ratings performance.
We were joking around this morning, “Welcome back to 1988, in terms of the program and the ratings!” (Laughs.)
Why do you think this show connected as much as it did? Was it nostalgia or politics?
It was a combination of both. When you have a show that was as beloved as Roseanne was during its run, the Conner family was a family that audiences were really anxious to reconnect with after all this time and see how they’re doing. It’s like welcoming old friends back. There certainly was a big part of that from nostalgia end of it. We were hopeful about this going in and it has borne out, given the current political climate, there’s a hunger for this kind of conversation. When you look at the back and forth that takes place in the pilot between Rosanne (Roseanne Barr) and Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), there are a lot of living rooms around the country that look and sound very much like that. The opportunity for that dialogue to happen against a comedic backdrop was very welcome.
The show overperformed in Middle America. What did you as a network do specifically to make sure the Middle America audience was engaged? Were there specific marketing strategies?
We are always, as a broadcast network, looking to market to all of America. We had great marketing stunt we did with NASCAR — which is not necessarily normally the audience that we go after — that worked very well with this show. We got the word out with subway station takeovers in many cities, we had bus bench takeovers, the iconic couch was everywhere, we were all over South by Southwest. We wanted to remind everybody about the show using iconic things like the afghan and the couch, and we really tried to be in most of the major markets where the show did well 30 years ago.
How soon will you be announcing a second season? All involved have said they’d like to do additional seasons — co-showrunner Bruce Helford wants to make this an annual event. What’s the negotiation for another season now that cast deals are in place?
We are excited about the possibility and the opportunity. We’re not ready to pull the trigger in this very moment on this call, but hopefully we’ll have some news soon.
Do you have an ideal episode count? Helford has said the goal is to always keep an episode count short as it’s not a cast that’s able to do 22 again, largely because John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf have film careers, etc.
The ultimate episode count has yet to be decided, but you are correct in assuming it’s not going to be 22 [episodes].
Will this always be a midseason show or could it move to fall?
It could conceivably move to fall, we haven’t really settled that yet. Some of that is going to depend on when we settle on the episode count and have an opportunity to look at the pilots that we’ve made and how everything fits together in terms of returning show renewals. There are a couple of different possibilities for how this could all work, and we’ll figure that all out in May. It could be fall, it could be midseason. It’s going to depend on what the other choices are that we end up making, and I won’t know about that until I see the pilots and have a better sense of which of the current comedies are coming back.
How will Roseanne‘s success influence your development going forward? Are you looking to reboot any other iconic ABC properties that could pair well with Roseanne? Home Improvement? Bring back Last Man Standing?
(Laughs) There are no immediate plans right now to bring back any of the other legacy shows. I can’t say there won’t be, but in terms of May announcements, I think it’s unlikely that we have anything that isn’t currently on the air and/or currently in pilot development. It’s unlikely, but not impossible.
There are rumblings every few weeks about Last Man Standing coming back, especially given Disney could soon own the show if the Fox deal goes through [the series was produced by 20th Century Fox Television]. Tim Allen has been vocal about wanting to do the show again. Have you thought about bringing that back and pairing it with Roseanne?
We have certainly talked about Last Man Standing, but we haven’t had any conversations about that in the last couple weeks. Not to say we won’t, but at the moment, there’s nothing on deck.
What about Home Improvement? That was a show that ABC owned back in the day…
We have not had any Home Improvement conversations of late.
Are you already talking about what you use Roseanne to launch next season?
Honestly, this is all so exciting, and while you kind of hope for great numbers like we had last night, this was certainly a very welcome and pleasant surprise this morning. We are making nine comedy pilots, we have some other things that we’re talking about doing in terms of comedy. I’m going to sit with the team and scheduling and think about what we want to do.
What are some of the other things you’re looking at doing on the comedy front?
I can’t talk about that! We’ve got some things up our sleeve! We’re not quite ready to announce anything else.
Would you do a Roseanne aftershow?
That is not something that has been discussed; it doesn’t mean it couldn’t be, but it’s not something we’ve discussed of late.
What do you think the smart, forward-looking take-away from Roseanne’s success should be?
What is really making me happy today is that more than anything, we delivered a high-quality show. It is well-written, smart, well-acted, funny and it’s connecting with audiences for those reasons. I feel optimistic because what this show and The Good Doctor show is that if you deliver a show that is high-quality, that has strong audience appeal, it will come. In an era where everybody only wants to talk about streaming and not as much about broadcast, it’s very satisfying to have one of these connect. It’s a win for all of broadcast [TV].
What about the flipside — the wrong industry take-away, more reboots from the same period?
I certainly have in my career rebooted a lot of things, and some of them have worked and some of them haven’t. When they work, it’s because there’s a real reason to be doing that show again, at that time. That has worked for us here and it’s also worked for NBC with Will & Grace. If we’re going to bring something else back, it has to have a strong and clear point of view about what we want the 2018 or 2019 version of that show to be. We don’t want to just do the same thing that we did 25 or 30 years ago. What Roseanne and everyone involved with this show have done is they’ve done a wonderful job of bringing the Conners into 2018. It doesn’t feel like we’re doing the same episodes that they were doing 30 years ago. It feels very current and also very funny. For those reasons, I’m excited.
You can’t talk about the show without discussing Roseanne Barr’s personal politics. Last night she had a Nazi tweet that was quickly deleted. How are you handling things like that?
This is the first I’m hearing about that tweet; I had no idea about that tweet. But to answer your question, I’ve talked about this before: I really only worry about the things that I can control. Roseanne has a whole team of people who work with her and they are helping her manage her feed and all the rest of that. That isn’t in my purview, so I don’t feel like it’s my job to manage it.