Tuned In

The Ratings Drought: Where's the Next Roseanne?

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So we’ve pretty much established that nobody’s watching anything this season. New shows are middling at best in the ratings, relaunched shows like Chuck and ABC’s Wednesday have cratered—even hits like House and Grey’s are not doing so hot.

OK, part of this is demographic, social and technological. 500 channels, time-shifting, blah blah blah. There are just more, and smaller audiences now. That’s not gonna change. And yet 70 million people watched Joe Biden and Sarah Palin for 90 minutes—proving there is an audience still out there if you give people something they want to watch.

The conclusion? After the writers’ strike, viewers didn’t want a “do-over.” They wanted a clean slate. They wanted to forget most of what they were watching before and see something brand-new, that would remind them why they missed TV. They still want brand new. And it looks like they will end this season still waiting for brand-new.

So what is the next next thing?

An article in The New York Post says the networks are looking to create lots of working-class comedies for hard economic times. Which is fine by me: for the past couple decades there have been too few working-class characters on big-league TV, which is one reason I suspect Deadliest Catch is so popular.

But! Every time there’s big news, the networks go in big for some trend they think will “speak to the times.” It rarely works. After 9/11, the networks thought viewers wanted nostalgic “comfort food.” Instead, viewers embraced scary-ass shows like 24 and gruesome police procedurals.

Still, the working-class strategy reminds me of a piece of TV history frequent commentator Tom Shaw often points out here. After the previous big writers’ strike, the following season was largely a bust. One of the few new hits was Roseanne, which introduced a new kind of working-class comedy to TV.

But this is 2008, not 1988. So if the networks try to make “the next Roseanne”—a bunch of domestic sitcoms we could have seen on TV 20 years ago—they will fail. But if they make the next Roseanne—a truly distinctive new kind of programming with a fresh, provocative voice—they could finally dig themselves out.

Here’s the point where I say what that program should be, but I got nothing. Feel free to share yours, though. Consider it your own personal pitch meeting.