There were bigger stories breaking on the Tuesday after Memorial Day, but on social media the news was all about Roseanne. It started with @therealroseanne’s revolting tweet about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. The post was bizarre, horrible, and nakedly racist, but at the risk of sounding cynical, I didn’t think anything much would happen as a result. I was wrong, and I couldn’t be happier about that. Not just because ABC did the right thing, but because of what I think it means.
By now there’s a numbing familiarity to the cultural outrage cycle, especially on Twitter. A celebrity (or possibly the president) tweets something offensive, and it triggers a backlash from other celebrities, pundits, media, and active social media users. Cable news shows are pumped with fresh material, indignant ripostes bounce around the internet, and boycotts are launched. Most of the time it’s sound and fury that signifies very little beyond how divided we are, how much time we spend on social media, or how tough it is to fill the cable talk cycle.
This time, however, things were a bit different. The tweet about Valerie Jarrett wasn’t @therealroseanne’s first offensive post. It wasn’t even the first racist one. But it was the one that brought swift consequences, both for the star and her future income stream. ABC’s announcement that it would cancel the Roseanne reboot just hours after her offensive tweet wasn’t just surprising, but it skipped several steps in the typical outrage cycle. Roseanne did apologize and delete her tweet, but ABC cut straight to the chase, avoiding a painful drip-drip of negative coverage and threatened ad boycotts. It not only canceled the show, but it took a clear public position against the ugly racism of her tweet, calling it “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values.”
What’s more, the ABC decision was quickly followed by a tweet from Roseanne’s talent agency, ICM, that it had dropped her. Then came the news that Hulu would remove the old show from its library, joining Viacom and its channels in pulling all Roseanne reruns. One after another, the dominoes fell.
Maybe it was the fact that the rebooted show’s ratings had declined by the end of its season. Or it could be that ABC was ultimately exasperated with Roseanne’s erratic and bigoted behavior. But Roseanne was the network’s top show, and I like to think that its swift move heralds a tipping point. Like the #metoo movement, which was a long time in coming, it’s just possible that we’ve had enough of racism, or to be precise, of people who think it’s okay to tweet racist or bigoted thoughts in the guise of humor.
Importantly to those of us in the PR business, the swift death of Roseanne is another case of a corporate brand stepping up where you might not have expected it. Sure, the show’s ratings had leveled off, but the rebooted Roseanne vehicle was the number-one show at ABC and the most successful new sitcom in years. Roseanne herself headlined the network’s upfront meeting presentation to advertisers just two weeks ago.
By way of explaining ABC’s decision in the face of a $60 million revenue loss, several have pointed to the fact that Channing Dungey, its relatively new entertainment president, is an African American woman. And that may be part of it, but I posit that this wouldn’t have happened the same way a year ago. Heck, it may not have happened even a month ago. And it feels good not to be jaded about this one.
On the very Tuesday that Starbucks closed 8000 stores for racial bias training, a bigoted star performer got what was coming to her, and the corporate entities involved didn’t even seem to flinch. And in the midst of a shambolic administration where presidential opinions and conspiracies are tweeted as fact, and faith in institutions from government to media is shaky, corporations are stepping in to assert their values – and maybe even remind us of ours.