For the second time in a little over a year, NBC is facing a controversy over a project it had announced with fanfare at the summer TCA press tour. Last year, it was a Hillary Clinton miniseries starring Diane Lane. After two months of relentless pressure from the Republican National Committee, the network scrapped it.
This time it is a family sitcom starring Bill Cosby. Back in July, NBC executives touted the project as being on track for a series launch in summer or fall 2015. That plan may now be derailed by resurfaced rape accusations against the veteran comedian.
This is not the first time Cosby has been plagued by the allegations — he even faced a lawsuit in 2005, which he settled out of court — but this time, they were amplified by the power of social media. A bit in a stand-up routine by comedian Hannibal Buress, in which he called Cosby a rapist, went viral, and a decades-old accusation became front-page news. A following op-ed piece in the Washington Post by an alleged victim turned up the heat on Cosby, creating a media firestorm. Ill-advised moves by the comedian—including last week’s Twitter stint asking fans to meme him that spawned a slew of rape-themed submissions and a painfully uncomfortable NPR interview in which Cosby dodged questions related to the accusations—made the situation a PR nightmare for the comedian. And the controversy is showing no signs of subsiding, with a second alleged victim coming forward on Sunday.
Woody Allen found himself in a similar situation in January, when a tweet from son Ronan Farrow the night Allen was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes revived another 20-year-old sexual molestation charge. The media frenzy in the midst of Oscar season did not seem to hurt Allen’s movie Blue Jasmine, whose star Cate Blanchett won the Academy Award. The controversy blew over pretty quickly and didn’t impact the release of Allen’s latest movie, Magic In the Moonlight, in July, and the filmmaker proceeded with his next feature, attracting A-list talent.
However, Allen is a writer-director. He no longer stars in his movies as he did in the past. Meanwhile, Cosby continues to be identified with his characters. His Heathcliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show is near the top of every list of America’s favorite TV dads of all time.
On the upcoming NBC comedy, executive produced by The Cosby Show‘s Tom Werner, Cosby is to star as Jonathan Franklin, a patriarch of a multi-generational family, who shares his many years of wit, wisdom and experience to help his daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren navigate their complicated modern lives.
In light of the renewed rape accusations, will viewers accept Cosby as a lovable grandfather dispensing advice? With the cloud over Cosby’s head, that proposition also will be hard for NBC to sell to advertisers.
The situation is different in cable/digital—Netflix is proceeding with its Cosby comedy special set for release on Thanksgiving, likely not minding the extra attention he has been getting. But broadcast TV is held to a different standard.
Hearing Cosby’s side of the story from him may help fans reconcile the image of the good-hearted, devoted father he plays on TV and the predator described by his accusers. But he has vehemently refused to address the allegations even after NPR’s Scott Simon noted to him that “there are people who love you who might like to hear from you about this.” The lack of public denial by Cosby makes NBC’s position even more difficult.
Because of the statute of limitations, it is unlikely Cosby will be prosecuted for the alleged crimes. But for a public figure like him, the court of public opinion is just as damning. Just look at fellow actor Stephen Collins, who played another father who made favorite-TV-dad lists on the WB drama 7th Heaven. He also has not been prosecuted for any crimes, but the moment a tape surfaced of him allegedly admitting to molesting girls, Collins was swiftly dropped from ABC’s Scandal and the Ted movie sequel, and his acting prospects appear slim to none.
Cosby already has had two talk show appearances axed, on Late Show With David Letterman and The Queen Latifah Show. Will the NBC series be next?
The network has a lot of money at stake. According to the deal, Cosby is owed a big penalty if the comedy doesn’t go to pilot. Because these are old allegations with little or no legal repercussions, the network may have to write Cosby a fat check if it kills the project. But the damage to NBC’s image—especially with parent Comcast priding itself as a family business holding strong moral values—could be pricier if it opts to continue.
According to sources at NBC, the project is still in development. That is the exact language the network used last year about the Hillary Clinton miniseries before eventually pulling the plug. The outcome here will likely be the same.