ABC’s “heartland strategy” seems to have gone up in flames now that Roseanne has officially been canceled ahead of its second season, following Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets about a former President Obama aide.
The appeal of ABC rebooting Roseanne was easy to understand. Operating on the idea that white working-class people voted Trump into office, the network’s self-titled “heartland strategy” aimed to cater to the “large number of people in the country who don’t see themselves on television very often,” the president of Disney and ABC’s television group, Ben Sherwood, explained to The New York Times in March. Thus Roseanne’s return to the airwaves with the title character rebranded as a Trump voter. The same reasoning likely influenced Fox’s decision to revive the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing, which also centers a working-class conservative character.
But this assumption about working-class voters’ loyalty to Trump is false, given research that suggests that exit polling on the 2016 election was flawed. Trump was elected by far more middle-class and rich white people than those in the working class. A Washington Post analysis of an NBC survey concluded that “only a third of Trump supporters had household incomes at or below the national median of about $50,000. Another third made $50,000 to $100,000, and another third made $100,000 or more... If being working class means being in the bottom half of the income distribution, the vast majority of Trump supporters during the primaries were not working class.”
Despite this, the myth of swaths of underrepresented white working-class Trump voters ready to embrace Roseanne persisted. More egregiously, despite her character’s alignment with Barr’s actual politics, we were expected to keep actress and television show separate. Roseanne was intended to be a heartwarming family show, not reflective of Barr, who used her Twitter account to share InfoWars and Seth Rich conspiracy theories, called Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg a crisis actor, and frequently used her love of Israel to spout Islamophobia. It’s why it was not particularly shocking when she attacked former Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett on Twitter this week with the viciously racist statement, “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.”
Hours later, Barr issued an apology on Twitter and promised she was leaving the platform. She also tweeted a follow-up, apologizing for everything but the racism dripping from her earlier statement. She did not acknowledge how comparisons to apes have always been loaded racial slurs in America for black people. She merely expressed regret for joking about Jarrett’s “looks,” as if she were Michelle Wolf targeted by conservatives after the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
“I apologize to Valerie Jarrett and to all Americans,” she wrote. “I am truly sorry for making a bad joke about her politics and her looks. I should have known better. Forgive me-my joke was in bad taste.” ABC and the show’s creatives knew that Barr, who has long been prone to offensive outbursts, could potentially be a liability for them. In the aftermath of her comments about Jarrett, however, consulting producer Wanda Sykes announced she would not be returning to Roseanne. Co-star Sara Gilbert also joined in: “I am disappointed in [Barr’s] actions to say the least,” she tweeted.
How could Barr’s behavior be news to ABC? She has been vile on the internet for quite some time. (As former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser Susan Rice pointed out Tuesday, this was not even Barr’s first time comparing a prominent black official to an ape.) What was it about this moment that truly pushed things over the edge? Was it Jarrett’s proximity to Obama? Or was it that ABC had just presented its new fall season at the Television Upfronts, celebrating Roseanne’s massive ratings and renewal for a second season? They even joked about her Twitter feed during the presentation. As The New York Times recounts, ABC hoped to land “up to $9 billion in advertising commitments by summer’s end. Roseanne, and its enormous audience and broad appeal, was the centerpiece of ABC’s presentation. Ms. Barr was introduced to the stage at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall before any other ABC executive or star.”
The irony of Barr’s cancellation is that conservatives claimed the show had a right to free speech, but very few of those who’ve bemoaned losing the series defended Kathy Griffin’s right to hold up a fake severed Trump head or reporter Jemele Hill when she called Trump a white supremacist and was suspended by ABC and ESPN. Barr’s right to be racist doesn’t trump the public’s right to be outraged.
In her statement on the show’s cancellation, ABC entertainment President Channing Dungey wrote, “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.” Emphasis on her show, as if somehow ABC owes no responsibility. The network knew who Barr was when it brought the show back and now faces the consequences of a failed experiment. Will its executives continue to chase after so-called heartland viewers to the detriment of their brand, allowing any conservative firebrand to be part of the ABC Group? Will it continue to punish people like Hill or Kenya Barris, who had an episode of Black-ish that would have addressed the NFL’s kneeling controversy taken off the schedule, even as ABC promoted a television show starring a woman who insisted a major school shooting was not real?
It’s hard to ignore the fact that Barr has long expressed openly racist things online. There is only a renewed interested in them now because ABC amplified her voice with this reboot.