The Real Story of Roseanne's Ratings


President Trump congratulated Roseanne Barr on the high ratings on the revival of her 90s comedy series. Michael Smerconish mused here as to whether Roseanne’s renewed popularity came down to the show’s content or to our present political divide (Roseanne’s character, in 2018, is an unapologetic Trump supporter): posted a poll to that effect on the website—are the high ratings more due to quality or to politics?—and the result was an almost exact fifty-fifty split.

But consider this: Roseanne’s ratings are present-day good—but historically weak. And they’re exhibit-A in just how fragmented America’s become. Check out the numbers:

Two Tuesdays ago, ‘Roseanne’ drew 18.44 million viewers, that is, 7.79 million more viewers than anything else on network TV. The show’s 5.2 share among the key advertiser demographic group of adults-aged-18-to-49” doubled the next-most watched program (‘Black-ish’ at 2.6, which benefitted from Roseanne’s lead-in on the same channel).

This past Tuesday, Roseanne’s numbers dipped a bit, but still crushed all opposition with 15.16 million viewers and a 3.9 share in the key 18-49 demo. The only other show with better than a 2.0 in the demographic measurement was ‘The Middle’—like ‘Black-ish’ the week before, it followed the ‘Roseanne’ slot on ABC.

Good stuff—but only relatively good. I’d like to compare ‘Roseanne’ to a show that ran in the 90s… a show called ‘Roseanne’. Here are the ratings, season-by-season, from Wikipedia:

Roseanne’s 2018 premiere drew a lower audience than every premiere in the show’s first run, and roughly half the Season Five peak.

Just as we’re fragmenting as to where we’re getting our (real or fake!) news and opinion, we’re fragmenting in what we watch on TV. 18 million viewers, dropping to 15 million after a week, were numbers which used to lead to talk of cancellation. Now, they’re ratings blockbusters.

The easy explanation is that this is due to a proliferation of TV channels and streaming services. That’s not the whole story. All those new channels since the 90s and Netflix and its competitors, are as much the end-product as they are the cause: we want to be comfortable in our ever-smaller viewing cocoons, watching shows that cater to what we think we already know and like. (I’m as conservative as they come, but my Tuesday cocoon isn’t Roseanne—it’s baseball. I love baseball and I love that nowadays it’s on every night.)

When speaking of television in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan popularized his theory that ‘the medium is the message’. The message in the Roseanne revival’s Tuesday-best-but-historically-bad ratings is that fragmentation runs increasingly deeper in American society.