Why ‘Roseanne’ and ‘Will & Grace’ are returning: TV networks playing it safe in a risky market

Network television wants to be America’s security blanket.

That was the underlying message in this week’s advertiser upfront sales presentations during which TV networks are vying for more than $18 billion in revenue for commercials on their fall schedules.

In the face of an increasingly risky and competitive market, where the costs of failure are higher than ever, TV networks are once again opting for shows that are safe and familiar to viewers. Much like their movie studio counterparts, who have relied heavily on reboots of old movies, network executives are reviving old shows at a rapid clip.

NBC is bringing back “Will & Grace,” one of its top comedies from 1998 to 2006. ABC is returning “Roseanne,” a hit from 1988 to 1997. Both shows will feature their original casts.

ABC is also bringing back Fox’s former mega-hit singing competition “American Idol.” The 1980s soap “Dynasty” is being revived at the CW. The disco-themed 1970s cop drama “S.W.A.T.” is on CBS.

Jimmy Kimmel is making a series of specials in which big-name stars will do live performances of classic sitcom episodes. Think Kevin Hart as Gary Coleman’s character in “Diff’rent Strokes.”

While the established programs will be immediately recognizable to older TV fans, they may not do much to stem the migration of younger viewers away from traditional TV toward streaming services. Prime-time broadcast and cable TV viewing has declined 23% since the 2011-12 season among the 18 to 49 age group that advertisers want most, according to Nielsen.

“The digital platforms and streaming platforms have absolutely said, ‘we are your home’ to those viewers,” said Warren Littlefield, a former NBC entertainment chief who now executive produces the critically acclaimed “The Handmaid’s Tale” for streaming service Hulu. “And it would appear that the networks don’t seem to be aggressively in the hunt for groundbreaking, edgier, younger…

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