Hitting the Heartland

Roseanne, depicting a working-class family and its President Donald Trump-supporting matriarch, was television’s big story last season, averaging nearly 19 million viewers on a live-plus-seven-day basis.

John Goodman (l.) and Sara Gilbert in ABC's 'The Conners.'

John Goodman (l.) and Sara Gilbert in ABC's 'The Conners.'

Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet led to its cancellation, but the network wasn’t done with the idea: The Conners premieres Oct. 16, and ABC hopes the gang can do some semblance of the robust ratings Roseanne garnered last year.

Ignoring the fiasco of the tweet, other networks are chasing The Conners into Middle America, hoping to win viewers with heartland themes built around the everyman as hero: Last Man Standing on Fox; NBC’s stacked Chicago shows on Wednesdays; FBI and God Friended Me on CBS; and a handful of series on the streaming networks.

“When something like Roseanne happens, the industry as a whole looks to replicate that in some way, shape or form,” media consultant Bill Carroll said.

Very few network executives will ever concede to targeting one section of the country or the other, and anyone on the broadcast side of the business is thinking broad appeal for anything on air. But these days, the aim seems to be at the very “flyover” states once ignored by tastemakers. And while series on the streaming networks have for years focused not so much on vast appeal, but on select viewers interested in gripping stories, some on the streaming side say their shows, too, shoot for viewers in the heartland.

Before Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan premiered on Prime Video Aug. 31, placing Clancy’s ace analyst in the heat of the Middle East, showrunner Carlton Cuse said he saw Ryan as a “classic American hero” when TV’s defense-minded antiheroes, on the likes of Homeland and 24, bend the rules to complete their missions. “He’s a guy with morals, and a sense of altruism and patriotism,” Cuse said.

Jack Ryan aims to depict the federal defense agencies, such as the CIA and FBI, in a noble light when many are quick to criticize them, Cuse added. Patriotic civil servants play well in Middle America.

“It’s the type of show that’s not made for TV critics, it’s made for viewers,” he said. “We think it has broad appeal — and appeals to a whole section of the country.”

Same goes for drama One Dollar, which premiered Aug. 30 on CBS All Access. The show, which tells the story of multiple murders through a dollar bill that changes hands among connected characters, is set in Pittsburgh, where showrunner Craig Zobel said it can depict the city’s current class clash between the big brains of Carnegie Mellon and Uber and Pittsburgh’s steel-production past.

“The idea was to set something that wasn’t New York or Los Angeles,” he said. “It’s indicative of another part of America we don’t see all the time on TV.”

A year ago, Amazon chairman and CEO Jeff Bezos said he wanted a global hit or two out of Amazon Studios, something akin to Game of Thrones. “We’re a mass-market brand,” then-studio head Roy Price told Variety. Yet Amazon’s big fall release, Matthew Weiner anthology series The Romanoffs, which premiered on Prime Video Oct. 12, is hardly mass-market. Its pilot, set in Paris (with subtitles), feels like an independent film, running nearly 90 minutes and featuring a main character with racist tendencies.

Networks Soldier On

President Trump’s surprise win for the White House gave voice to overlooked voters in the heartland, and it appears to have prompted networks to make sure they don’t overlook them. The 2017-18 broadcast season featured a glut of military themed programming, including SEAL Team on CBS, Valor on The CW and The Brave on NBC. At the time, The CW president Mark Pedowitz downplayed any notion of programming to red or blue states.

“It doesn’t matter what the attitude of the country is,” Pedowitz said. “If it’s right, people will watch it.”

People, for the most part, did not watch. SEAL Team returned this season, while the other shows did not. (History also cancelled military drama Six, about Navy SEALS, after two seasons this past summer.)

Do red states and blue states actually like different programs? A study from E-Poll showed that Democrats’ favorite show for the 2017-2018 season was Game of Thrones, followed by How to Get Away With Murder, This Is Us, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Broad City. Chicago Fire, Chicago PD and Chicago Med also made the top 10, as did Stranger Things.

Republicans favored Grey’s Anatomy, How to Get Away With Murder, Supernatural, This Is Us and Criminal Minds. The Walking Dead, at No. 6, was the lone non-broadcast show on the GOP list. Roseanne came in at No. 71 among Democrats and No. 31 among Republicans.

Another E-Poll study showed viewers who are Democrats prefer shows that are “sexy, edgy, emotionally involving, ethnically diverse or have strong characters.” Republican viewers, for their part, like programs that are “family-friendly, funny, plot-driven or have storylines that involve ‘good vs. evil.’ ”

Everyone’s Invited

Similar to network executives, few showrunners will say they are targeting a certain section of the country. New ABC comedy The Kids Are Alright, which leads out of The Conners, shows a family of eight boys growing up with ultra-conservative parents in the early ’70s, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and other social strife. “I haven’t thought, this is a red-state show, this is a blue-state show,” creator/showrunner Tim Doyle said. “I haven’t approached it as, I’m reaching out to this audience or that audience.”

Neal Baer, showrunner on drama Designated Survivor — which will premiere on Netflix after two seasons on ABC — said people are too complex to program to individually. “You have to be really careful about saying you’re going to pitch to this group or that group and how that affects your storytelling,” he said.

Network executives don’t love talking about red states and blue states watching their shows, either. After all, it’s entertainment, not cable news. Andy Kubitz, executive VP, programming strategy, ABC Entertainment, said Roseanne wasn’t so much about politics as it was about social issues, seen through the eyes of working-class folks.

“I don’t believe the Roseanne conversation has much to do with red state and blue state,” he said. “The first episode touched on politics, but the rest was about real issues in America that no one else is talking about on television.”

Among the broadcast rookies, FBI, which premiered Sept. 25, shows the inner workings of the bureau’s New York office. Last Man Standing started Sept. 28. Airing for six seasons on ABC before it moved to Fox, it’s about a politically conservative guy, played by Tim Allen, who works for a sporting goods chain. God Friended Me, which debuted Sept. 30, is about an atheist podcaster who is friended on social media by God.

If The Conners looks crafted for the heartland, NBC’s comedies, which include Will & Grace, whose reboot was birthed by a video the four cast members did about Trump weeks before the presidential election, are designed more for urban viewers. Pedowitz said CW hit Supernatural connects with a broad swath of the country, while Crazy Ex-Girlfriend appeals to niche viewers.

“We’re broadcasters — we’re designed to hit the whole country,” he said. “But within the whole country you’re going to hit pockets.”

The Murphy Brown reboot on CBS reaches out to both ends of the political spectrum. The premiere saw Brown, who comes out of retirement to host a cable news show, spar with President Trump on Twitter. It also featured a cameo from Hillary Clinton, who interviews to be Brown’s secretary. (“For four years I was the secretary of a very large organization,” said Clinton.)

Murphy Brown also features Brown’s son, Avery — recall that Dan Quayle derided Murphy Brown for “mocking the importance of fathers” for depicting a single mother back in 1992 — hosting his show on a rival conservative network, the Wolf Network, that features chats with regular Americans in coffee shops and bowling alleys.

Executive producer Steve Peterman, who also worked on the original show, told The New York Times the series came back because Trump is in the White House. “If Hillary Clinton was elected there’d be no artistic reason for this show to be on the air,” he said. “But because of the election, and because the position the press is now finding itself in, there were so many reasons for this show to come back.”

Yet the idea of creating a show based on what the country appears to be feeling and thinking doesn’t quite line up with the labor-intensive, time-consuming nature of producing television. Preston Beckman, former senior strategist at Fox and chairman of media consulting outfit The Beckman Group, mentions Fox brass meeting after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to focus on how best to program to the wounded nation, before deciding they’d never be able to react in time.

“You make decisions today and implement them one or two years down the road,” Beckman said. “Who knows where the country’s head could be then?”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the L.A. Times and New York magazine.