Can CBS Make Murphy Brown a Hit, Again?

Sitcom could face a tougher path than other successful ’90s revivals

The Candice Bergen comedy signed off in 1998 after 10 seasons.
CBS

In the past few years, broadcasters have successfully attracted audiences with revivals of hit ’90s series, from The X-Files (Fox) to Will & Grace (NBC) to Roseanne (ABC). Now CBS will try to continue the streak when it brings back Murphy Brown on Thursday, 20 years after the sitcom, starring Candice Bergen as the legendary TV journalist, signed off.

But Murphy Brown could face a tougher path than its predecessors, as factors like the series’ (and its stars’) relatively low profile since the 1998 finale, and its lack of availability on streaming services, may mute its potential audience. CBS counters that the show is positioned to be just as relevant now as it was during its original run. “Murphy Brown was a no-brainer because of the highly politicized social media culture we’re in now,” said CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl. “The minute we heard [the pitch], we were like, how cool would it be to have Murphy Brown back on the air during these times?”

Creator Diane English, who had first toyed with a revival back when Sarah Palin was running for vice president in 2008, needed some time to warm up to the idea. Early last year, she made a deal with Warner Bros. Television, which produces the series, to write a revival script, but it took her nine months to finish it, following a bout of writer’s block. “There’s no reason to come back if you’re going to do the same exact show the same way,” said English. So Bergen and her team have moved from their 60 Minutes-esque news magazine, FYI, to a 24-hour cable news network. Meanwhile, her now-adult son, Avery, works for a rival cable news channel, which is patterned after Fox News.

“There’s no reason to come back if you’re going to do the same exact show the same way."
Diane English, creator, Murphy Brown

The series will once again tackle several current hot-button issues, including a #MeToo-themed fourth episode, which had been in the works for months but now takes on added resonance following the Sept. 9 departure of longtime CBS Corp. chairman and CEO Les Moonves after a second wave of sexual assault and harassment allegations. “We didn’t want to blur the line between what’s happening on our network and what’s happening on our show to our characters. So no, we didn’t touch it at all” after Moonves’ exit, said English.

The revival “has good potential to be successful,” said Maureen Bosetti, chief investment officer, Initiative. “It’s the right time, especially if we think about the news cycle and this whole idea of journalists and ‘fake news’ and the political environment we’re in. So there’s an opportunity to tell important stories, but with that lens of humor, because it’s a sitcom.”

However, buyers also wonder whether Murphy Brown’s fan base is as eager for the show’s return as the other hit revivals, in part because cost-prohibitive music rights issues have prevented the program from appearing on streaming services, where younger audiences could discover it. “With the casts of Will & Grace and Roseanne, you still felt like they were part of the cultural conversation. I am not sure that Murphy Brown still is, so that may be a challenge,” said Carrie Drinkwater, executive director, integrated investments, MullenLowe’s Mediahub.

CBS isn’t worried. Unlike the bidding war between Netflix and ABC over the Roseanne revival last year, the network acted quickly and decisively to secure Murphy Brown’s return. “We were the first call, and we did not take long to sew up the deal,” said Kahl, who gave the revival a straight-to-series order in January. The company recently added 18 episodes of the original series—ones without pricey songs from the Motown music catalog—to its CBS All Access OTT service so that viewers could brush up or watch for the first time.

This story first appeared in the September 24, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Recommended videos