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Four Takeaways From the ‘Roseanne’ Cancellation

The controversy probably isn’t over, and ABC still has some cleaning up to do

Getty Images/ABC/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday afternoon, one of the strangest chapters in recent TV history came to a swift and ignominious end. In the wake of a racist Twitter post by Roseanne Barr, Roseanne, the sitcom revival turned latest front in an ongoing culture war, was canceled. The show finally proved inextricable from its namesake and star, ABC’s one-time saving grace and its ultimate liability. The line between those two identities, it turns out, is a single tweet.

Until Tuesday, Roseanne’s network had proved to be tolerant of Roseanne Barr’s extremist right-wing views, aired freely and without mediation to the viewing public via Barr’s frequent posts on social media. Since her eponymous show returned to jaw-dropping ratings, Barr has endorsed widely debunked conspiracy theories linked to Pizzagate, called left-leaning billionaire George Soros a Nazi, and entered any number of spats with members of the media. The show itself was considerably more mainstream but nonetheless earned criticism over its nine-episode revival season for failing to challenge Roseanne Conner’s political beliefs, using the character’s African American granddaughter and gender-nonconforming grandson as offensive figureheads, and most notoriously, making a snide crack seemingly aimed at Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish, fellow entries in ABC’s sitcom lineup.

Through it all, ABC remained staunchly supportive, renewing the series for an 11th season less than a week after the 10th premiered. Even as network president Channing Dungey promised that future seasons would emphasize “family over politics,” she defended the joke at the expense of two other ABC offerings: “I do stand by the Roseanne writers in terms of the decision to include that line,” Dungey told The Hollywood Reporter. “They felt that they were expressing the point of view of the Conners in what they actually would have said.” In late March, Disney CEO Bob Iger included Roseanne alongside A Wrinkle in Time and Moana in a tweet listing “reflections of the wide variety of people, backgrounds and opinions of the world we live in.”

That all changed with a transparently racist post directed at Valerie Jarrett, a former adviser to and close associate of president Barack Obama. Within hours, Dungey had released a one-sentence statement announcing Roseanne’s cancellation, following comedian and consulting producer Wanda Sykes’s public resignation. Iger has since chimed in to call Dungey’s choice “the right thing,” Viacom announced it will pull reruns of the original Roseanne from three of its channels, and Barr’s agency ICM has dropped her as a client. A switch has evidently been flipped: A woman executives once wrote off as an eccentric wild card has become a black mark to be expunged.

This is, to put it mildly, a remarkable reversal, unprecedented in speed as well as scope. Given the factions involved and Barr’s alarming adjacency to national politics, Dungey’s call is bound to have repercussions throughout entertainment and the culture at large. A few immediate takeaways:

ABC Will Do What’s Best for ABC

Dungey may have nixed Roseanne, but she, Iger, and their colleagues also took pride in its successes, which were concurrent with Barr’s consistently hard-line statements. (Roseanne’s numbers declined as the 10th season went on, but still maintained a viewership into the tens of millions as of the finale.) They also made the decision to invest in a refurbished Roseanne with full knowledge of Barr’s actions in the years since her show first went off the air in 1997, which included posing for a photo shoot dressed as Adolf Hitler—Barr is Jewish—and a string of transphobic comments.

What shifted between Roseanne’s success and its demise was not Barr herself; while the tweet in question was undeniably repugnant, Barr has shared repugnant, bigoted, and arguably dangerous views in the past. More likely, what shifted was ABC’s calculation about the costs of associating itself with those views. Before the Jarett remark, Barr’s conduct was seemingly an acceptable risk offset by Roseanne’s considerable rewards. One possible interpretation of Tuesday’s events is that they posed a credible enough threat to ABC’s reputation, and therefore earning potential, that Dungey opted to cut her losses.

It’s true that ABC also had the option of settling for a half-measure, such as an apology or a fine. But the choice to cancel occurred within an incentive structure that prioritizes ABC’s relationships with advertisers, as well as other creative talents. I have no knowledge of Dungey’s personal feelings regarding Barr as a person or this specific tweet, which compared Jarrett, who is African American, to an ape. (Dungey is the first African American head of a major American broadcast network.) I do know how she has conducted herself as ABC’s president, which is as a savvy businesswoman, in this circumstance no less than others. In this particular case, bad morals also happened to be bad business—and preventing future Roseanne-like messes largely depends on making sure that impression sticks.

Roseanne Might Be Over, but the Roseanne Effect Probably Isn’t

The Roseanne revival was only one prong of ABC’s so-called “heartland” strategy, an overall plan hatched in a meeting following the 2016 election, as reported by The New York Times. The story of the blue-collar, middle-American Conner family was joined by a crowd-pleasing new version of American Idol; this fall, ABC will premiere The Kids Are Alright, about a working-class Irish Catholic family in the 1970s struggling to make ends meet.

Nor is ABC the only network to go all in on a more conservative, or at least less affluent and coastal, audience. Currently in the midst of an impending Disney merger–imposed identity crisis, Fox is relaunching Tim Allen’s proudly retrograde Last Man Standing after the sitcom was canceled by, of all networks, ABC. Fox also dispatched an entire wave of quirky, single-camera comedies in favor of new series like a straightforward multicam about a retirement home.

It’s too early to know for sure if broadcast television’s powers that be will reconsider this trend post-Roseanne, but I suspect they won’t. The Roseanne debacle is a specific instance, hinging on the behavior of a specific person. For demo-minded higher-ups, I doubt Barr’s actions have any bearing on a much broader experiment in selling themselves to her fans. The lesson learned here will be about the dangers of social media exposure. There’s no evidence yet to contradict the idea that a more conservative focus—both big- and small-c, and often implicit—is a smart call. Expect more Roseanne-like programming, if not more Roseanne.

Consider the Hornets’ Nest Poked

By rebooting Roseanne, ABC put itself between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Barr, bound to enrage either her critics or her fans by either supporting or condemning the comedian’s statements. Though the network has largely chosen to provoke the critics, Roseanne’s cancellation suddenly puts ABC in the crosshairs of the American right wing. It’s a different kind of online outrage than the outcry that played a role in the show’s abrupt conclusion, but it’s one that could also spell trouble for a network whose intention is to avoid controversy.

Beyond her character’s support of him, Barr has aligned herself with President Trump, who once gave her a call to congratulate her on the show’s ratings and subsequently gloated about them at a rally in Ohio: “It was about us!” Trump has a rally scheduled in Nashville on Tuesday night, as well as instant access to his Twitter feed; it’s entirely possible we’ll hear the commander-in-chief’s ire directed at a television network sometime in the next few hours or days. Not that the MAGA crowd needs Trump’s permission to get angry—the standard free-speech complaints and accusations of double standards have already started to fly.

Canceling Roseanne at least takes a side where a more equivocal response would enrage everyone: left-wingers for not doing enough, right-wingers for backing down. But furious Trump supporters also have the capacity to start precisely the kind of trouble ABC was hoping to evade. Keep an eye out for how they respond.

ABC Has More Cleaning Up to Do

It bears mentioning that there were signs of trouble with Roseanne even before this most recent development, with coshowrunner Whitney Cummings announcing her exit less than two weeks ago. (Cummings has described herself as “the progressive libtard in the room,” at one point proposing a story line about the dangers of storing a gun in the house that was nixed by other producers.) And there are larger issues at ABC that remain: Shonda Rhimes, progenitor of the diverse, soapy, unapologetically liberal house style that has defined ABC dramas in recent years, has decamped for Netflix; Black-ish creator Kenya Barris openly celebrated Roseanne’s cancellation on Instagram. Earlier this year, ABC pulled an episode of Black-ish that reportedly featured a discussion of NFL players kneeling in protest of police brutality, though Dungey maintains that the pulling was “a mutual decision” and that kneeling was “not even really the issue.” Barris was recently reported to be exploring a possible early exit from his current overall deal with ABC Studios.

Together, these wrinkles suggest that ABC has larger issues than just one bad apple. Even now that the network has abrogated its relationship with Barr, its ongoing support of her has still done damage—damage ABC can no longer write off as the unpleasant byproduct of an otherwise fruitful alliance. ABC has sent a strong message distancing itself from Barr’s personal politics, but it also aired an expression of contempt toward an entire programming block of its own making. Can ABC provide a convincing explanation of why this tweet was a bridge too far but others were not? If ABC isn’t comfortable in either a coastal bubble or Trump’s America, where exactly can it go? These might be inevitable questions that come up when a company decides to align itself with Roseanne Barr, but ABC doesn’t appear to have given them much thought.