A year ago, Bill Cosby, armed with a pitch for a new TV show, began taking meetings with network executives. The idea was simple: Re-create the magic of The Cosby Show with a sitcom built for a new generation.
"There is a viewership out there that wants to see comedy, and warmth, and love, and surprise, and cleverness, without going into the party attitude," Cosby told Yahoo TV in November 2013. Partnered with Tom Werner, who executive produced his seminal hit with Marcy Carsey, Cosby quickly found a willing buyer: NBC, which aired The Cosby Show from 1984 to 1992. (Simultaneously, Cosby was looking to develop a new version of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, but it's unclear whether that was ever pitched to networks.)
While NBC made a big talent deal with Cosby, 77, with an eye toward developing the show, the network did not give a series commitment. Werner brought in actor-writer Mike O'Malley (the two were already working together on Starz's new sitcom Survivor's Remorse) to pen a script and veteran producer Mike Sikowitz to supervise the multi-camera show's creation.
The producers honed in on the idea of Cosby playing as the father of three grown daughters, each in their own relationship. O'Malley would play one of Cosby's sons-in-law, and Tempestt Bledsoe (who played Vanessa Huxtable on The Cosby Show) was even approached to star as one of Cosby's daughters. (It's unclear how far those talks went. Bledsoe had a deal with NBC stemming from her role on the network's short-lived Guys with Kids.)
"It's just a classic, big-extended-family sitcom," NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke told reporters in July. Beyond that, development was slow, and by the end of summer an expanded premise had not been finalized. O'Malley was still busy with his Starz show, Sikowitz was executive producing the new CBS comedy The McCarthys and Werner (a co-owner of the Boston Red Sox) spent the summer preparing his case as a finalist to succeed Bud Selig as Major League Baseball Commissioner. (He didn't get the job.)
Cosby's calendar was filled with stand-up dates, an exhibition of his private collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, and his latest comedy special, Bill Cosby 77, which was set to premiere on Netflix November 27.
Then, in mid-November, a few weeks after comedian Hannibal Buress called Cosby a rapist in a stand-up clip that went viral, a rash of women came forward to accuse the comedian of sexually assaulting (and sometimes drugging) them.
Some Hollywood executives appeared at first tone-deaf to the outcry. But they shouldn't have been surprised. Cosby's alleged criminal behavior has been the subject of media reports for at least a decade. In 2006, he settled out of court a civil assault case brought by Temple University employee Andrea Constand before an assembled group of 13 more women could testify against him. At press time, no fewer than 20 women had made public allegations against Cosby. He was even described as a "serial rapist" by one accuser, former model Jewel Allison. In the last decade People, Newsweek, and Philadelphia magazines, as well as NBC's Today, have all investigated the accusations.
"All of the ingredients were in the pan, they just needed a fire to heat them up," says Ernest DelBuono, an executive in crisis management at Washington, D.C.-based Levick public relations. "Up until September, while all these accusations were out there, they were dormant. And he was still getting requests to speak at graduations and events. Now it has flamed up and there will always be the sentence in any story about Bill Cosby regarding the accusations."
For anyone paying attention, Cosby's real-life persona never seemed to match the characters he played on TV. In a 1984 TV Guide Magazine cover story, writer Kathleen Fury described the star as "combative, defensive, challenging, threatening and hostile. The most innocuous line of questioning could set him off."
What's most telling, director Judd Apatow recently tweeted, is how few in Hollywood are coming to Cosby's defense. "I am saying his inner circle is not that surprised," Apatow wrote. "People knew something bad was happening. For decades."
In a statement released November 20 by Carsey and Werner, the producers expressed more shock than support. "The Bill we know was a brilliant and wonderful collaborator on a show that changed the landscape of television," theywrote. "These recent news reports are beyond our knowledge or comprehension."
Even as the scandal heated up, NBC kept the new Cosby show on its development slate. "Aren't these allegations over 30 years old now?" one exec told us at the end of October. Clearly, he didn't expect the number of charges to grow. One insider familiar with the proposed sitcom says that NBC made its deal with Cosby because the network hoped to capitalize on the goodwill left over from his days as America's dad, Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable. Once that goodwill disappeared, there was no way the series would happen. But NBC didn't have to do anything official to end the project — it could have just faded away, like the majority of scripts in development do. (In this case, there wasn't even a script yet.) In NBC's mind, a public announcement would give the project too much weight and make the network part of the story.
Netflix had a bigger dilemma: As the women began coming forward, it was just weeks away from premiering Bill Cosby 77. Pulling an already-produced special would be a financial hit. On November 13, the streaming service told us the program was still launching as planned. Five days later, as the story escalated, Netflix said it was postponing the special.
Once Netflix pulled the plug, other programmers felt they had to respond in the face of media scrutiny. On November 19, NBC confirmed that its Cosby sitcom wasn't moving forward. TV Land pulled reruns of The Cosby Show from its schedule and scrubbed any references to the show on its website.
Even without the scandal, Cosby's appeal was less obvious than it used to be. Cosby's critique of young African-American culture has been controversial (which, incidentally, led to Buress' comedy routine) and millennials didn't grow up on The Cosby Show, making him more of a curiosity than an icon among that demographic.
"I don't think [the NBC project] would have ever happened," says Jim McKairnes, chair of Global Broadband and Telecommunications at Temple University's School of Media and Communication. "Cosby is 14 years away from his last series [CBS' Cosby ended in 2000], which was not successful. I'm not sure what the constituency for this show was, and I don't think anybody in my classroom understands or gives a crap about the Cosby legacy."
With the exception of The Cosby Show, most of Cosby's other fare is hard to find on TV. As of this writing, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids airs early weekend mornings on Bounce TV, a small digital network geared toward African-Americans. Cosby's Nick Jr. animated preschool series, Little Bill, ceased production in 2006 and hasn't aired since February. BET's Centric channel continues to air the classic 1980s sitcom, which is also available for streaming on Hulu Plus.
The furor has yet to make a huge impact on Cosby's wallet. He was presumably paid for both the NBC deal and the Netflix special and has made millions off The Cosby Show, which, at the time it was sold in the late 1980s, had the biggest syndication sale in history. But now, the show is at such an advanced stage that residuals for Cosby and the rest of the cast are likely small; while the TV Land income is gone, they'll continue to get paid for the Centric and Hulu Plus airings.
Where Cosby might get hit hardest is in touring revenue. He continued to perform in recent weeks, even receiving a standing ovation at a Florida show. Nonetheless, late November dates in Las Vegas and Yakima, Washington, were canceled, and it's unclear whether his busy 2015 schedule will hold.
Crisis expert DelBuono says Cosby "will always be able to go to the Bahamas or Erie, Pennsylvania, and pack the house." But, he adds, the comic will likely never have the same level of success in TV, film or as a corporate spokesman. "You can't put the genie back in the bottle."