Reviving TV's familiar faces: the marketing behind old favorites like Trading Spaces & Roseanne

ABC's Roseanne. Credit: ABC

Roseanne, Will & Grace and Full House were some of the biggest hits of the '90s...and are now some of TV's biggest shows today. Old is new again, or so it seems.

In the current TV landscape, the tried-and-true reboot is officially having its moment in the spotlight, with each network laying claim to revivals of long-lost shows that once brought them ratings galore.

ABC is riding high on the return of Roseanne, while CBS is preparing to bring back Murphy Brown this fall. NBC just wrapped up the first season of its Will & Grace reboot, and Discovery’s TLC revived its home makeover show Trading Spaces last month after a 10-year hiatus.

Even TV newcomers like Hulu and Netflix are getting in on the reboot action: the former will air new episodes of ‘90s cartoon Animaniacs starting in 2020, while the latter is currently home to three seasons of Fuller House, a spinoff of ABC’s once-popular sitcom Full House.

The reboot frenzy has surely gotten TV fans across the country excited for the return of classic characters and plots, but it poses an interesting dilemma for the marketers tasked with promoting these shows: how do you play up the nostalgia factor for longtime fans while also appealing to a whole new crop of viewers?

For Jennifer Sarlin, senior vice president of marketing at TLC, promoting the Trading Spaces reboot has proved to be a balancing act that involves “making something old feel fresh and of the moment while staying true to what superfans love.”

In each episode of Trading Spaces, two pairs of neighbors swap houses for two days - armed with $2,000 each - to redo one room in each other’s homes. The show’s signature shoestring budget and time crunch make for TV fodder that Sarlin says is markedly different from the many other home makeover shows that have cropped up since Trading Spaces made its initial debut in 2000, giving it a leg up even 10 years later.

“When we went to market, we’d done our homework: we knew that the premise itself still seemed - even in today’s crowded marketplace of home shows - really intriguing to even new viewers. So we made sure that the unique premise of the show was still front and center as we were leaning fully into nostalgia,” she says.

Tapping into the nostalgia that avid Trading Spaces fans have for the series is something that Sarlin says has been a key pillar of the reboot’s marketing strategy, especially since much of the show’s original cast - including host Paige Davis and carpenter Ty Pennington - have returned for round two. The show’s two-minute trailer, which debuted in January of this year and has nearly 10 million views on Facebook, spends much of its time zeroing in on the familiar faces and quirks of the original cast members.

“We designed the campaign to really lean fully into one simple idea: ‘the OGs of design are back,’” says Sarlin. “We really think seeing the cast back together again means something to the fans. It was a huge deal for fans to have a comeback, and so the campaign had to reflect that.”

It’s a strategy that’s not dissimilar to that of Roseanne, whose trailer splices reboot footage with clips from the sitcom’s glory days in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The trailer, which first aired during this year’s Oscars just three weeks before the revival premiered, was designed to remind viewers of what made Roseanne so popular in the first place while showcasing the return of its original cast of characters.

According to Rebecca Daugherty, executive vice president of ABC Marketing, the network decided to use old Roseanne footage in its marketing efforts after seeing it resonate with the audience at last year’s upfront.

“We premiered a trailer featuring footage from the original run of Roseanne at last year’s upfront presentation, and it received an overwhelmingly positive response,” says Daugherty. “It became apparent to us that audiences were seeing these nostalgic clips as ‘comfort food,’ so we embraced it and targeted our campaigns to focus on icons that resonated with fans. We identified two particular things - the couch and Roseanne's laugh - and made sure those were present in all of the marketing tactics. Mainly, we reminded people just how funny the show was and showed them that it's still as funny and relatable as ever.“

Roseanne’s iconic couch and living room decor were key centerpieces of ABC’s marketing strategy for the reboot, making appearances at SXSW and via a transit takeover in one of New York City’s busiest subway cars.

“The social amplification we got from all these tactics was huge and went well beyond the initial reach of these stunts,” Daugherty says.

The mass amounts of press coverage that Roseanne has received since ABC revealed its plans for a reboot last year has also helped the dated sitcom find relevance in a world that looks remarkably different from the one its initial run took place in.

Mike Monello, founder and creative director of entertainment marketing agency Campfire, says marketers of revived shows largely rely on press coverage as part of their overall advertising push since it’s essentially a given that journalists will write about series that already have a built-in fan base and following.

“The media knows that if they cover the Roseanne reboot, they’re going to get clicks,” Monello says. “Chances are that a reboot of Will & Grace is going to get a lot more coverage than a brand new property.”

The press frenzy around Roseanne has been particularly noteworthy since the show’s eponymous character, played by Roseanne Barr, is both a Trump supporter in the show and in real life. Considering the revived version of the show touches on timely topics like gender identity, polarized politics and the opioid crisis - and in one season alone has already spurred countless think pieces about its handling of controversial issues - the series has the potential to at least pique the interest of a whole new generation of viewers.

“Given that the show has always been about working class families, and that’s clearly a topic that resonates today - perhaps even more so than when the original show started - you’ve got something that might actually bring some new viewers to the show,” says Monello.

While the rebooted season of Roseanne has boasted eye-popping ratings, making it the most-watched show on TV, it still has to compete with the likes of Netflix and Facebook to fight for eyeballs. If and when the novelty factor wears off, the marketing team behind Roseanne will be tasked with keeping momentum up for a show that some might say has already had it say in the sun - a problem that all revivals must come to face at some point or another.

Just this week, Fox said it has "no plans" to bring back The X-Files next season. Since making a return to TV in 2016, the series has experienced underwhelming ratings, with many fans agreeing that it's time to call it quits. Last year, CBS canceled The Odd Couple reboot starring Matthew Perry after three seasons.

The cancellations serve as cautionary tales for networks banking on reboots to keep ratings afloat.

“When you bring back a show, you can draft off nostalgia for a premiere or maybe an entire season, but are you going to be able to sustain that? I think that’s where you get into discussions of how marketers are going to have to bring new audiences to these shows," Monello says.

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