Rise and Fall! Ratings Plummet for ABC’s Ambitious Gay Rights Drama ‘When We Rise’

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By Tom Teodorczuk | 12:18 pm, March 3, 2017
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ABC can’t be accused of underplaying When We Rise, its eight-hour drama miniseries chronicling the struggles and setbacks of LGBT activists in the 20th century.

Some thought the show, created by award-winning gay activist Dustin Lance Black and aired on four nights this week, goes out of its way to portray middle America as intolerant homophobes. When We Rise received saturation ad coverage during the Oscars ahead of its premiere this week, to the extent that one Twitter commentator joked that if he drunk alcohol every time he saw an advert for the show, he’d be dead by the end of the Academy Awards broadcast.

But part one of When We Rise flopped on Monday. As a result, ABC rescheduled Modern Family to run just before the second installment to boost ratings. However, viewership of the second part fell almost 1 million viewers from its premiere, netting an audience of only 2.05 million on Wednesday, which is pathetic for prime-time slot on a commercial TV network.

The final part of the miniseries is Friday night. (President Trump’s address to congress on Tuesday delayed the show’s transmission by a day.)

Doubtless there will be devotees of the show who will blame the president for interrupting the flow of When We Rise, which stars Guy Pearce, Mary Louise Parker and Whoopi Goldberg.

But its failure more likely stems from the fact that viewers don’t respond well to ‘virtue scheduling’ on TV. When We Rise at times resembled an infomercial for GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders). Even the New York Times didn’t give the show a rave—when the Grey Lady sniffs that a starry gay-rights drama “plays like a high-minded, dutiful educational video,” you know the show is in trouble.

The marketing was also disastrous, with Lance Black coming across as vocal and passionate about his series but never seeming to make up his mind whether he wanted to appeal to Trump voters or take them on with his new creation.

On top of the ratings failure of When We Rise, USA’s gay-murder mystery Eyewitness was canceled, and CBS’s Doubt—the first network television show to feature a trans actress (Laverne Cox) as a trans in a lead role—was dropped after just two shows. In a piece about these shows, LGBT website The Advocate noted: “In a time when LGBT rights are under attack — and myths about queer lives still influence laws related to same-sex marriage, adoption, employment, bathroom access, and so-called conversion therapy — these depictions are vital to changing hearts and minds.”

Not as vital to TV audiences as changing the channel, it seems.

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