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Roseanne Barr at an event for the 75th Golden Globe Awards this year. 2018 Kevork Djansezian/NBC/idmb

Commercial TV’s rare leadership on Roseanne is a breath of fresh air

Earlier this year, ABC America successfully relaunched 1980s sitcom Roseanne. The show’s 2018 return was funny and found a very large, free-to-air broadcast audience. Indeed it was a sitcom revival that seemed to return an audience to broadcast TV itself.

The show has now been cancelled after its star, Roseanne Barr, posted a racist tweet that compared African American Valerie Jarrett, former adviser to Barack Obama, to an ape, saying it was like the “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby”. The tweet has since been removed. Barr has replaced it with an apology.

ABC America’s president, Channing Dungey, did not mince words, saying: “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.”

In Australia, the rebooted Roseanne aired on Network Ten. Repeats of the show’s “classic” series have also appeared on Eleven and Foxtel. Network Ten said in a statement that it too was “appalled and disgusted with Ms Barr’s racist tweet and has removed Roseanne from TEN and ELEVEN, effective immediately”.

These actions show rare leadership in the commercial sector. They are swift, direct, made with certainty and demonstrate that, for some, there is a clear line even money can’t cross.

In Australia and overseas Roseanne has significant advertising draw. How refreshing it is to not be facing waves of ads exploiting the show’s controversial nature, which is the other way networks could have acted, given the attention the tweet has received.

Roseanne has described her “bad joke” as being “in poor taste”. However, there is more to consider than “bad” and “taste” here. In fact, it was not actually a joke at all. Rather, it was a power exchange designed to directly belittle, marginalise and insult based on race. Racism causes actual harm.

Read more: The ape insult: a short history of a racist idea

The decision to remove Roseanne’s show is also one that points to questions about the kinds of people commercial television feels it wants to support in 2018. When the show returned in the current American political climate much was made of Roseanne being a “Trump supporter” while her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) was clearly on the other side. This did raise questions for some fans.

As writer Roxane Gay beautifully articulated in her review of the Roseanne reboot for The New York Times, many fans of the show had faced an uncomfortable tension between loving the character Roseanne Conner and being increasingly alarmed by the actor Roseanne Barr.

Noting just how hard it can sometimes be to “separate the art from the artist”, Gay argued persuasively against watching the reboot because of Roseanne’s politics and previous hateful speech on Twitter and other public platforms. Even though she found the show itself funny, calling the first episode “excellent”, Gay said she could no longer watch because “no amount of mental gymnastics can make what Roseanne Barr has said and done in recent years palatable”.

In response to Barr’s tweet about Jarrett, Gay simply tweeted: “I told y’all about Roseanne. I told you. So.”

Still, Network Ten’s swift response today is in interesting contrast to another case where commercial broadcasters are in the firing line over ethics. Channel Seven’s decision to pay $150,000 for a forthcoming interview with a sitting MP, Barnaby Joyce, and his partner, Vikki Campion, after their son’s birth also invites questions about what networks should pay for – and what audiences should put up with.

In the case of Roseanne, the question about whether we should watch or not was made on our behalf. What would happen if we, the viewers, made that ethical decision ourselves and decided to boycott Seven’s Sunday Night Joyce interview en masse?

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