Who would have thought a sitcom that premiered in 1988 would help rescue the ABC television network?
Welcome to 2018.
The Walt Disney Co. broadcast network on Tuesday celebrated its successful reboots of “Roseanne” and the singing competition show “American Idol” with hundreds of advertisers who flocked to the David Geffen Hall in New York City for a peek at ABC’s new fall schedule.
Nielsen ratings released earlier in the day showed that ABC is distancing itself from its cellar-dweller days. ABC, which has finished the last few TV seasons in third or fourth place among viewers ages 18 to 49, is tied with CBS and Fox for second placein the coveted demographic for the current TV season. NBC continues to lead the pack.
Much of the credit goes to “Roseanne,” whose success has surprised some analysts. The show, which showcases a struggling working-class family, has averaged more than 19 million viewers an episode, outpacing “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS.
“The last time we had the No. 1 show was 24 years ago,” said Ben Sherwood, president of Disney/ABC Television Group. “If anyone came to play a drinking game for how many times we mention ‘Roseanne’ — you’re welcome.”
The ABC sitcom, starring Roseanne Barr, is jockeying with NBC’s acclaimed family drama “This Is Us” for the crown as the highest-rated scripted show among 18- to 49-year-olds this season. In addition, ABC launched the season’s most popular new drama, “The Good Doctor.”
ABC and other networks are grappling with sweeping changes in the TV industry, including the loss of TV-show hit makers to Netflix. Media companies including Disney are aggressively searching for ways to compete against Netflix and other tech giants such as Amazon.com, Google and Facebook.
Disney has offered $52.4 billion to buy much of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox company, including the FX and National Geographic cable channels, along with the prolific 20th Century Fox television and movie studios.
For Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger, one of the prime motivations to buy the Fox assets is to quickly bulk up ABC’s production capabilities at a time when owning TV shows is important.
ABC has struggled over the years to create blockbuster shows beyond those produced by Shonda Rhimes, who announced last year that she was leaving her longtime ABC Studios home to join Netflix. For example, “The Good Doctor” originated at Sony Pictures Television, which co-produces the show with ABC. Returning sitcom “The Goldbergs” also is a Sony production, and “Modern Family,” which has played on ABC for nine seasons, hails from 20th Century Fox Television.
Disney needs rights to shows to stream them on its digital-entertainment platforms, including a Disney-branded streaming service set to launch next year. Should Disney succeed in acquiring the Fox properties, the Burbank entertainment giant also would gain the majority stake in streaming service Hulu. (Cable giant Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal, is expected to bid for the same Fox properties that Disney wants to buy.)
But ABC executives haven’t been waiting for the Fox acquisition to try to up their game. The network made an expensive bet this season to bring back “American Idol,” a hit show for the Fox network for more than a decade. On ABC, the show has averaged about 10 million viewers an episode.
“Having ‘American Idol,’ such a beloved show, added eyeballs to the network,” said Lisa Herdman, a senior vice president of the Santa Monica advertising agency RPA, who manages ad buys for national video platforms. “And then, along came ‘Roseanne.’ Who in the heck knew it would be so big?”
ABC has ordered 13 episodes of “Roseanne” for next season. The show, Herdman said, might have helped fill a hunger for programming that features characters from Middle America.
“We are seeing real advantages for programming for Middle America,” Herdman said. “Sometimes programmers — and advertisers — get stuck in our own lives on the two coasts, and we are not reflective of the rest of the country. But we don’t want to do ourselves a disservice by neglecting this audience.”
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