In Hollywood, money always trumps politics

For anyone who is obsessed with politics, whether they lean left, right, or in the middle (wondering what’s wrong with everyone else), there is an underlying belief that pretty much anything anyone says or does in television or film must be inherently based upon some political goal or bias.  The right makes this especially obvious in their disdain for liberal “Hollywood”.

We’ve seen it most vividly recently in the discussions regarding ABC’s reboot of Roseanne, some suggesting that the network is finally paying attention to conservatives.  The truth, however, is that while employees and management have their own political beliefs, media decisions are not based on politics, but rather on the bottom line. Should those two ideas intersect, then all the better, but it’s merely a happy coincidence- not the intended objective of the show.

Political junkies will point out the revival of two big hits from the Bush-Clinton-Bush era, Roseanne and Will & Grace, as an example of TV trying to appeal to a specific political demographic. But a closer inspection will reveal that the networks were looking to appeal towards the largest possible audience that would be willing to watch and be attractive to advertisers.  

Are Roseanne and her character a Trump supporter? Sure. Are the main characters on Will & Grace liberals? Sure. But pay attention to other characters and the storylines.  On Roseanne, there is discourse about a lack of healthcare, acceptance of gay and transgender people, and disappointment with all that was promised by Trump.

On Will & Grace, Megan Mullally’s Karen Walker is not just a Trump supporter: she’s a friend of his and can’t say enough good things about him.  Political messaging is there if you’re looking for it, but the only real overall conceit in rebooting these shows is to make money.

Even the idea of bringing back these shows was serendipitous.  For Will & Grace, there was some initial political motivation, but it had nothing to do with bringing back the series.  According to original show co-runner Max Mutchnick, he was talking about the upcoming 2016 election and thought of a joke that he would have loved to have written for the show if it was still around. The discussion should have ended there, but Mutchnick’s husband, Erik Hyman, reminded him that the original set was in their storage and that they could easily revive the show, provided the original stars were interested.  It took Mutchnick just 45 minutes to make the calls, and the cast made a 10-minute “Get Out The Vote” video.

7 million views later, NBC is thinking there must still be an audience for the show.

Roseanne was also a happy surprise. John Goodman appeared on Sara Gilbert’s The Talk, and after the two performed a 30-second parody sketch of their old show, someone asked Goodman if he’d ever considered doing a reunion show. He responded, “Of course I would.” Gilbert called the rest of the cast, and the reboot was in the works. For ABC, what wasn’t to like?

At this point, we need to discuss just how the sausage is actually made rather than what you see on your television.  When Rosanne went off the air in 1997, it was a Top Ten show and averaged almost 21 million viewers. In 2016, you only needed 14 million viewers to break the top ten.  Television viewership has become extremely fragmented in recent years, with many more options available and younger viewers migrating away from broadcast television to streaming services.  

According to Nielson, Primetime broadcast and cable TV viewing have declined 23% since the 2011-12 season among the 18 to 49 age group, the key demographic for advertisers. Adding to the chagrin of advertisers, network audiences are not only shrinking, but they are aging.  According to the Los Angeles Times, the median age of audiences for ABC and NBC is now 56 and at CBS it’s hit 60.

Rather than going after the groundbreaking, edgier, younger audience appealing content such as The Handmaid’s Tale that digital and streaming platforms are now producing, broadcast television is thinking more about shows which are enjoyable and accessible to their core audience.  Think of network fare as comfort food – it may no longer be water cooler TV, but it’s familiar, dependable, and entertaining.

So then why revive all these old shows from the near and not so near past such as Magnum P.I., Murphy Brown, Charmed, and Last Man Standing, rather than create brand new shows? For one, I just listed those old shows and most of you had heard of them.  Fox is resurrecting Last Man Standing not because Tim Allen is a conservative, but because they believe that millions of people will tune in to watch him.

Since the early days, television has always tried to go back to the well by recycling actors in new shows in the often false hope that viewers were fans of the cast, not just the characters they portrayed.  They also try to reconnect with audiences via reunions such as Rescue from Gilligan’s Island, The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies, and The Munsters Revenge. And of course, there have been characters spun off from successful shows into their own show, until networks found out that while Joanie Loves Chachi, the audience didn’t.

Additionally, one of the major problems facing the networks is that successful new shows are just hard to create, especially comedies. You have to come up with a premise that is new, yet feels familiar. Network executives are far more comfortable with an idea that has already been successful rather than trying to create fresh content.  

Of course, once someone else successfully launches that idea, everyone will want their own version.  And that’s the easy part of developing a new show- you need talented writers who can create a half-dozen characters. Then try to find the right actors who can use those words and bring those characters to life.  

Unfortunately, most new shows never get seen outside of network focus groups and the cast and crew’s family.  Even if the show is put on the schedule, you’re not in the clear yet, as you have to explain to the ad buyers what that show is about, what audience it will appeal to, and why they are going to want to advertise on it.

The cost to the networks to create, produce and sell programming is rising, and revenues from sources such as content licensing & distribution, affiliates & subscription, and advertising still make up close to half of the revenue.  According to Brian Frons former president of ABC Daytime and a lecturer at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, “the networks try to sell 75 to 80% of their ad time for the upcoming season, and it’s much easier to sell something that advertisers understand and they don’t have to have explained to them.”  

Hence, it’s Magnum P.I. or Charmed, just like the old show you loved, but with new actors. Or it’s Roseanne or Will & Grace, with the original cast so we get to see what they are doing all these years later.  The shows had huge ratings the first time, everyone loved the shows, so the next question is: how many minutes of advertising do you want to buy?

Unlike with movies, where there are ancillary streams of revenues from merchandise and theme parks to recoup some of their expenses, television shows live and die on their ability to attract viewers and keep people on their couches from changing the channel.  No matter how much talking heads pontificate about a show’s social relevance, for the studios, it’s all about the money. The thought of pundits talking and writing about a show’s political message is merely a nice bonus. Needless to say, regardless of her political views, it’s doubtful there’ll be a Roseanne ride at Disneyland.

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