Why did two black-owned networks bring back 'The Cosby Show' amid assault accusations?
At Bill Cosby's sexual assault trial in Norristown, Pennsylvania, the legendary comedian made sure to remind everyone that he is a television icon. On Tuesday, as the jury finished its second day of deliberations, Cosby yelled his famous Fat Albert catchphrase, "Hey! Hey! Hey!" out to supporters as he left the courtroom. Keshia Knight Pulliam, who played the youngest daughter to Cosby's Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show, arrived arm-in-arm with her TV dad on June 5, the first day of the trial.
On Saturday, a judge declared a mistrial in the case, after the jury was "hopelessly deadlocked" on its sixth day of deliberations. For days, supporters showed up to court in T-shirts that read "We Love Bill Cosby" and with signs imploring "Free Mr. Cosby Now." Despite a spate of allegations against him, fans, family and friends of Cosby were hell-bent on defending "America's TV dad."
But doting dad Cliff Huxtable wasn't on trial. It was Cosby, the 79-year-old television icon, who faced three counts of aggravated indecent assault against former Temple University employee Andrea Constand.
In October 2014, Hannibal Buress' stand-up routine about Cosby's alleged history of sexual assaults went viral. Dozens of women then spoke out about being sexually assaulted by the comedian and actor, with some incidents dating as far back as the mid-1960s.
One by one, networks began to pull reruns of The Cosby Show off the air. TV Land scrapped the show from its programming in November 2014. In December 2014, the Magic Johnson-owned network Aspire cut ties with the wholesome comedy. The sitcom was completely off the air by July 2015, when the BET-owned Centric, which had recently rebranded as a network geared toward black women, became the last network to pull the show. The Huxtables were no longer on television.
That is until December 2016, when Bounce TV started re-airing the show after it announced in November that the landmark '80s sitcom would be "back by popular demand." In March, the network also began airing episodes of Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids, Cosby's cartoon series that originally ran from 1972 to 1985, during an early Friday morning time slot. Bounce TV is billed as the first and only broadcast network aimed at black audiences and was founded in 2011 by Martin Luther King III and Andrew Young."While we take very seriously the accusations against Bill Cosby, our research showed that African-American consumers see a distinction between Bill Cosby, the man, and the iconic TV character Cliff Huxtable," a Bounce TV spokesperson said in a statement to Mic.
On May 19, rather quietly, black-owned cable network TV One began airing reruns of the show, too, just two weeks before Cosby was set to stand trial. In a statement to Mic, the network also cited their audience's ability to "distinguish their feelings regarding Mr. Cosby, the man, from Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, the beloved television character."
Research showed, according to TV One, that 81% of black Americans are likely to watch, with 86% indicating that recent events didn't negatively affect their decision. (When asked about their research method, a TV One spokesperson explained that the network conducted a study with Maru/Matchbox in January 2016, and according to 600 respondents, 81% would be likely to watch reruns of the show on the network. Separately, only 14% of respondents said the allegations against Cosby made them less likely to watch.)
"Although there has been controversy surrounding the allegations and court case against Mr. Bill Cosby," the statement from TV One reads, "feedback from our audience indicates that most TV One viewers still have a nostalgic affinity for this iconic TV show."
Billie Gold, media analyst and vice president director of programming research at Amplifi US, confirmed that Bounce and TV One appear to be the only U.S. networks airing The Cosby Show. Over the course of its original run, which spanned from 1984 to 1992, The Cosby Show was revered for resurrecting the television sitcom in the 1980s. It is one of two sitcoms that reigned at the top of Nielsen's ratings for five consecutive seasons. (CBS' All in the Family is the other.) Cosby, the show's patriarch and executive producer, was often hailed as a media hero, and credited with saving NBC.
"He saved American television," culture critic Michael Eric Dyson said in Cosby Unraveled, a podcast produced by WHYY during the trial. "[The Cosby Show] became one of the most popular shows in the history of the medium and revolutionized American consciousness about the black middle class."
That these small, black-owned networks would pick up the series again isn't particularly surprising. The Huxtables, an upper-middle class family in Brooklyn Heights, offered a fresh take on black life in the United States for white and black audiences. As Mic's Jamilah King pointed out in December 2015, the fictional family of seven countered images of welfare queens and crack babies in the '80s.
From a business standpoint, it was likely an easy choice to put the reruns back on the air. Networks need content, and the series would be relatively inexpensive since there's not much demand for it and because production stopped more than 25 years ago, media analyst Brad Adgate said in an email. Like its competitors — BET and Aspire — these networks use old sitcoms to fill early morning, afternoon and pre-primetime time slots.
Robin R. Means Coleman, an expert in black media in popular culture who teaches at the University of Michigan, said Bounce and TV One are sending a "clear, troublesome message." The networks, she said, are choosing to stand with Bill Cosby and reject Constand and the dozens of other women who have accused him of sexual assault.
"The issue is not so much airing The Cosby Show, but purposefully opting to air it at this particular time," she said in an email. "It is akin to a radio station, in 2008, choosing to have a R. Kelly song marathon during his child pornography trial."
But Coleman also argues that there's more at stake here than just bad optics for the networks. "It runs the risk of revictimizing the women involved in this case," she said. "Second, it reminds women that gestures of solidarity are not for them."
The Bounce TV audience offers perspective on how many people find it easy to separate the multiple sides of Cosby. To people who have no problem watching The Cosby Show today, it's possible that Cosby's simply synonymous with "an iconic TV character" and is a beloved figure in black America before he's a man accused of sexual assault.
His supporters have long said Cosby's being targeted because he's a rich, powerful black man in media. They also argue that the media and the around 60 women who have accused him of sexual assault hope to tarnish his legacy for the sake of doing so. Cosby's critics say his alleged misconduct is especially hypocritical coming from the man who played Huxtable, not to mention the same man who's delivered several finger-wagging speeches to black people over the years. In the infamous "Pound Cake speech" at Howard University in 2004, he lambasted the state of black parenting, dropout rates for black students and homicide rates in the black community.
In March 2016, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who starred as Theo Huxtable on The Cosby Show, lamented that white men with criminal allegations often go unchecked in Hollywood and in the general public. He called out two film directors whose legacies have been tainted by controversy — Woody Allen and Roman Polanski — as well as another former TV dad who's had horrible accusations levied against him, Stephen Collins.
On Cosby Unraveled, James Braxton Peterson, Lehigh University's director of African studies, also pointed out that "people still love Woody Allen movies," despite allegations from Allen's adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, that the director sexually abused her when she was 7, in 1992. (Allen has consistently denied any wrongdoing.) Peterson also referred to Polanski, who won an Oscar in 2003 for The Pianist, but couldn't show up to the ceremony because he fled the U.S. back in the '70s, after pleading guilty to a charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. "[White men] enjoy the legal privilege of being considered innocent until proven guilty. That's unfortunate but that's how race operates in America."
As for Collins, he was investigated for child molestation in October 2014; the actor confessed during a 2012 therapy session to sexual contact with three young girls. For 11 seasons, Collins portrayed pastor Eric Camden, a father of seven children on the hit WB series 7th Heaven. Quickly, 7th Heaven was yanked from Up, a family-friendly cable network that was airing episodes in syndication.
But in June 2015, the network put 7th Heaven back in rotation, and it still airs several episodes a week. Up's executive vice president Amy Winter said in July 2015 that the episodes were performing "really well" in its first month back on the network.
The last few years of The Cosby Show's syndication life is in stark contrast to the series' early licensing deal. It was so beloved among audiences that a bidding war ensued for rights to syndication in 1986. Viacom ultimately won, and set the record for the biggest sale in syndication history. The media company shelled out a record $4.8 million per episode, and the reruns — which began airing in 1988 — have netted $1.5 billion in revenue in the past two decades, according to Forbes. (For comparison, Seinfeld made more than $3 million per episode in its first licensing deal.) Cosby, as well as producers Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey, became big-time multimillionaires. At the time, TV Guide estimated that Cosby alone would receive $166 million from signing the deal, the Los Angeles Times reported.
As for the level of public interest in watching The Cosby Show now, Google Trends offers a revealing data point. Between June 1 and June 17, the search term "Bill Cosby Netflix" peaked on June 5, the trial's start date, showing the most engagement over that time period on the search engine. Netflix is not currently streaming the show, but Amazon Prime users can stream the series as part of their subscription. Hulu pulled the series in November, after deciding not to renew its licensing deal with producers Carsey and Werner.
However, The Cosby Show reruns, according to Adgate's estimate, are likely pulling in tiny audiences in the tens of thousands of viewers per episode. When it was pulled from Centric in 2015, the show drew about 45,000 viewers, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
At its peak during its initial run, The Cosby Show pulled in 63 million viewers on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. More than two decades later, a tiny sliver of that audience is still seeing Cliff Huxtable on TV. But Bill Cosby — the man who will likely be retried in the Constand case and currently faces 10 civil lawsuits from other alleged victims — will likely continue to be watched by millions.
June 26, 2017, 12:49 p.m.: This post has been updated.