The Message Behind ABC’s Cancellation of ‘Roseanne’

After waiting about 24 hours, President Trump responded earlier today to ABC’s cancellation of “Roseanne” yesterday (May 29), tweeting, “Bob Iger of ABC called Valerie Jarrett to let her know that ‘ABC does not tolerate comments like those’ made by Roseanne Barr. Gee, he never called President Donald J. Trump to apologize for the HORRIBLE statements made and said about me on ABC. Maybe I just didn’t get the call?”

The president’s tweet is receiving applause from supporters, while critics note he failed to condone Barr’s tweet, one ABC considered contentious enough to abruptly end what had been a highly successful return to episodic television.

shutterstock_793567579This next-day story will consume media coverage until the next big item pushes it off the front page. [See update at the bottom of this page.] While that’s material for another post, the concern now is what message did ABC send with the cancellation of one of TV’s top-rated series?

On the surface it seems a message of morality—such insensitive tweets and behavior won’t be tolerated at ABC. Here’s ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey’s statement: “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.”

It’s not a very good statement unless you believe, for example, Barr’s other tweets were in line with ABC’s values. Was her tweet that financier and holocaust survivor George Soros is a Nazi consistent with ABC’s values? Like many performers, Barr is far from an angel. A perusal of her social media feed reveals a long line of tweets and other activities ABC would be hard pressed to defend as being in line with its values. For example, was her comparing Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice to an ape a few years back consistent with ABC’s values?

The real takeaway is that once an employee sufficiently threatens to harm the money-making potential of a company, a choice about said employee’s future must be made. ABC calculated Barr’s behavior had progressed to the point that it now was a threat to future revenue. Prior to Tuesday, ABC executives certainly knew of Barr’s social media and other activities—remember her 1990 rendition of the National Anthem that ended with a crotch grab?—and calculated they were not of a sufficient risk to the brand to do much about them, at least publicly.

What went into the calculation? The “Roseanne” series was earning revenue for ABC. Its initial return to TV registered eye-popping ratings that surprised experts. In addition, it brought eyeballs to ABC’s Tuesday lineup. ABC quickly renewed the series. As the season progressed, ratings declined, yet “Roseanne” still was TV’s rating story of the year, ranking as the number one scripted comedy for several weeks.  “Roseanne” was featured during ABC’s recent upfront, the TV industry’s ad-buying dog and pony show. Prior to the series’ reboot, “Roseanne” fetched $167,000 for a 30-second ad, a major coup for an unproven show. That figure was sure to increase in season 2 based on season 1’s ratings.

The Barr saga is not terribly different from myriad other instances in which a star property is generating revenue for a brand while engaging in questionable behavior (see Lauer, Matt; O’Reilly, Bill; Rose, Charlie; or Batali, Mario). It seems plausible to believe the corporate bosses of these companies knew of their stars’ behavior prior to media reports exposing them during the #MeToo period. They had calculated that the stars’ earning power—even if such behavior was exposed—made them an acceptable risk. These men remained on the payroll and generated revenue.

ABC and Dungey, a black woman, were aware of Barr’s past and current proclivities and backed her regardless. The announcement for the season 2 renewal of Barr’s series included Dungey promising the series would emphasize family life over politics, a nod to those who complained about sensitive material in season 1.

It now falls to ABC communicators to convince people on both sides of this issue that the network acted correctly. Supporters of Barr, and presumably President Trump, will argue ABC is picking on Barr unfairly. Some already are calling for boycotts. Opponents will condemn the president for seeming to make light of a serious situation and condoning Barr’s tweet. They’ll say ABC had no business being in bed with Barr in the first place.

Update (May 31): Roseanne Barr apologized for her tweet (May 30) during a 100-tweet barrage and put some of the blame on Ambien. “Not giving excuses for what I did (tweeted) but I’ve done weird stuff while on ambien — cracked eggs on the wall at 2am etc.”

Sanofi, maker of the sleep medication, replied in a tweet: “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.” couldn’t resist joining the conversation, tweeting, “The name Ambien is thought to come from the word “ambient” or similar words in French. Ambient does not mean “prone to making racist comments,” but it does mean “of the surrounding area or environment.”

Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News. Follow him:@skarenstein