On the morning after the 2016 election, a group of nearly a dozen ABC executives gathered at their Burbank, Calif., headquarters to determine what Donald J. Trump’s victory meant for the network’s future.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘There’s a lot about this country we need to learn a lot more about, here on the coasts,’” Ben Sherwood, the president of Disney and ABC’s television group, said in an interview.
They began asking themselves which audiences they were not serving well and what they could do to better live up to the company name — the American Broadcasting Company. By the meeting’s end, they had in place the beginnings of a revised strategy that led the network to reboot a past hit centered on a struggling Midwestern family, a show that had a chance to appeal to the voters who had helped put Mr. Trump in the White House.
On Tuesday night, the strategy proved more successful than the executives had hoped: “Roseanne” premiered to the highest ratings for any network sitcom in almost four years.
The show’s approach to sociopolitical issues — its star and co-creator, Roseanne Barr, plays an unabashed Trump supporter who spars with her liberal sister, played by Laurie Metcalf — especially reverberated among heartland viewers. The top markets for the debut read like a political pollster’s red-state checklist: Cincinnati; Kansas City, Mo.; Tulsa, Okla. Liberal enclaves like New York and Los Angeles did not crack the top 20.
Channing Dungey, the president of ABC Entertainment, said the success of “Roseanne” was a direct result of the post-Election Day initiative to pursue an audience that the network had overlooked.
“We had spent a lot of time looking for diverse voices in terms of people of color and people from different religions and even people with a different perspective on gender,” Ms. Dungey said. “But we had not been thinking nearly enough about economic diversity and some of the other cultural divisions within our own country. That’s been something we’ve been really looking at with eyes open since that time.”
As the Nielsen numbers for “Roseanne” rolled in, ABC executives went from gobsmacked — Mr. Sherwood said he thought the early figures he had seen were a mistake — to euphoric.
“People gather round and they see themselves in this family,” Mr. Sherwood said. “It speaks to a large number of people in the country who don’t see themselves on television very often.”
By Thursday, this dusted-off sitcom centered on a highly opinionated matriarch had become a flash point in the nation’s culture wars. It had also spurred a cathartic response from many conservatives, who counted its opening-night success as their own.
Among those celebrating was President Trump, who called Ms. Barr to congratulate her on the “huge” ratings. On Thursday,…
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