‘Roseanne’ Controversy Reveals Limits of Star Power in Hollywood

With “Roseanne,”

Walt Disney
Co.’s

ABC took a risk by reviving not just a 20-year-old show, but a business model it had largely abandoned, in which a television or film series is inextricably linked to a single celebrity.

On Tuesday, that business model blew up.

Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet resulted in her show being canceled almost immediately by ABC. Hundreds of cast and crew have now lost their jobs and the network is without one of its biggest hits, one that could have been a centerpiece of its schedule, ad sales and public identity for years to come.

Two months ago, when “Roseanne” returned after 21 years off the air to sensational ratings, ABC executives boasted that the show was part of a new strategy to reach working-class people who felt underrepresented in popular culture.

But ABC didn’t develop a show about a struggling family in Illinois and happen to cast Ms. Barr. It brought back “Roseanne,” a show with its star’s name in the title and the words “based upon a character created by Roseanne Barr” in the credits.

When “Roseanne” aired from 1988 through 1997, sitcoms built around comics were commonplace. There was no “Home Improvement” without Tim Allen and no “Everybody Loves Raymond” without

Ray Romano.

It was also, not coincidentally, the era of “star vehicles” at the box office, when the participation of

Tom Cruise,

Julia Roberts

or

Eddie Murphy

was frequently the reason a movie got made and the reason millions of people bought a ticket.

But star power has been on the wane in Hollywood for years, in no small part because of Disney. Under Chief Executive

Robert Iger,

the media conglomerate is no longer home to the biggest stars. Instead, it has become home to the biggest brands, some of which it bought (Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm), and some of which were homegrown (ESPN and even Disney itself, the brand name behind “Beauty and the Beast” and “Frozen”).

These major franchises have far more consumer appeal than any particular person who helps to make them. The Avengers and Toy Story will surely live on and profit even when

Robert Downey Jr.

and

Tom Hanks

are long gone from them. ​

As evidenced by Disney’s fat bottom line, that approach makes sense in a high-stakes, global entertainment market where media companies spend hundreds of millions making movies, producing television series or building theme-park rides. With so much at stake, better to build your business by owning the characters rather than leasing the talent.

Disney didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The “Roseanne” debacle illustrated another good reason: social media. Celebrities have been saying outrageous things since the dawn of newspapers and radio, but there was always some buffer between them and the general public. If Ms. Barr woke up 20 years ago with something offensive to say, it would have taken some time and effort to broadcast her thoughts to the world, during which she might have reconsidered or a network publicist might have been able to stop her.

Now a major media company like Disney has no way to control or spin what Ms. Barr says on her

Twitter

feed. It can only react amid the fallout, from a trending #BoycottABC hashtag to President Trump complaining that Mr. Iger apologized to

Valerie Jarrett

but not to him for “the HORRIBLE statements made and said about me on ABC.”

If Ms. Barr were merely the lead actress on her program, “Roseanne” might go on, as “House of Cards” has done without

Kevin Spacey.

And it is possible the production studio behind the show could try to launch a spinoff in the future. But there is no “Roseanne” without Roseanne Barr, which means that, for now, there is no more “Roseanne.”

ABC is now in a tricky spot. It can’t fill nearly 20 hours a week of prime-time programming with branded sequels and spinoffs, as Disney’s studio does for the dozen or so movies it releases each year. But whatever ABC puts on the air this fall to replace “Roseanne,” the show probably won’t have a star’s name in the title.

Corrections & Amplifications
Two months ago, “Roseanne” returned to TV after 21 years off the air. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that it had been off for 11 years. (5/31)

Write to Ben Fritz at ben.fritz@wsj.com

Appeared in the May 31, 2018, print edition as ‘Star Power Blows Up For ABC, ‘Roseanne’.’

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