The shockingly consistent rape allegations leveled against Bill Cosby by 15 different women seem to have made the comedian radioactive.
Even if you somehow believe that this is a wild conspiracy designed to bring down a rich and powerful man (which strains credulity, to put it mildly), then footage of Cosby asking the Associated Press to "scuttle" a portion of an interview where he refuses to respond to a question about the allegations doesn't suggest the best of the man. It's highly unlikely that he will face criminal charges or even another civil suit, but his reputation has taken an enormous hit. This is almost certainly the end of his career.
Cosby is 77, though. His career was on a downward slope anyway, helped along by several controversial statements he's made over the past decade about what he perceived as failures in the black community. But that career has created a long legacy, which people have a great deal of justified affection for. His stand-up and television work have been hugely influential. So what happens to all of that?
Probably not a whole lot. Read on.
Is The Cosby Show over?
By far the piece of Cosby's legacy that most Americans are familiar with is the eight years he spent playing Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show, one of the biggest sitcoms of all time and a huge influence on the genre from its debut in 1984 until the present. There's a reason it took NBC a relatively long time to drop its planned comedy with Cosby — there was every reason to hope he might strike gold again. But the allegations have caused NBC to drop that show, and also caused TV Land to pull the program from its schedule.
Here's the thing, though: these moves won't have much effect on the program, because The Cosby Show had already moved into the equivalent of the TV afterlife. Indeed, the program didn't occupy prime real estate for TV Land anymore. This decision was a way to seem like the network is doing something, while remaining relatively low risk.
But the other network that could be affected by pulling Cosby Show reruns is TV Land's corporate sibling Centric, a BET spinoff channel that used to be BET Jazz. Centric exists primarily to show reruns of sitcoms, and it airs The Cosby Show every day at 2 pm Eastern. Notably, Centric is going ahead with a planned Cosby Show marathon this Saturday, at least if its website is to be believed.
Centric could just pull Cosby and throw some other sitcom into its timeslot, but that's a higher risk than it is for TV Land. Centric is an out-of-the-way channel, and it counts on big shows that people will instantly recognize drawing in channel surfers. And "big show that people instantly recognize" definitely describes The Cosby Show.
The Cosby Show is also still available to stream on Hulu Plus. It was actually the centerpiece of a major deal struck between Hulu and Carsey-Werner Productions (the company that made the show) in 2011. That deal proved so successful that Hulu licensed even more Carsey-Werner titles (including Cosby's much-less-loved, self-titled sitcom from the '90s) earlier this year.
Does continuing to air his show mean these companies are giving Cosby money?
Not really. Yeah, Cosby likely gets continued residuals (small profit percentages paid to various creative personnel who worked on a TV show) from syndicated reruns of the show, but the vast majority of the money he makes on any syndication or streaming deals comes upfront. So, for instance, the money Hulu paid to Carsey-Werner to license the program in 2011 was most likely paid to him then. (It is, of course, impossible to know exactly how these deals are structured, but in most cases, it seems safe to assume payment came upfront.)
The simple fact that The Cosby Show has ended up on obscure cable channels and online streaming suggests that its long life is already at an end. When it first entered the syndication market in the late '80s, it sold for the highest price anyone had ever seen a sitcom go for. It was then something of a disappointment in that market, and it faded from reruns for a few years, before getting a renewed boost when it was picked up by Nick at Nite and, later, TV Land. (Viacom owns both of these networks, as well as Centric, and often shuffles shows among the various networks in its portfolio.)
But, really, The Cosby Show has had a typical lifespan for a hit show. It was hugely popular when it was on the air, found slightly less popularity in syndication, then entered a long twilight of cable reruns, home video releases, and streaming deals.
The number of shows that found huge, long-lasting success in syndication, running for years at top dollar, is very, very small, and The Cosby Show is not really in that list of shows. As such, most of the money Cosby made from it was in the '80s and early '90s. TV Land pulling it from the schedule is highly unlikely to significantly impact Cosby. The same goes for Cosby's other successful shows, like the 1960s hit I Spy, which is now safely ensconced in some other level of TV Purgatory altogether, showing on low-budget nostalgia channel Retro TV.
Well, what about his stand-up?
Here's where Cosby will probably see the most effect. A stand-up tour necessarily requires some sort of media press, and the live setting is also exactly the sort of place where, say, an angry heckler would be able to question Cosby directly. It's tempting to say his stand-up career is probably over.
But let's be honest: it's not. His calendar of upcoming performances remains full — with an event even scheduled for tonight. Plenty of people still love Cosby, and they would be willing to overlook just about any allegations in order to see him perform. He remains an impeccable stand-up, a perfect master of how to tell a joke. (Look at that awful routine about spiking women's drinks that resurfaced earlier this week in a slightly different light, and you see just how great he is at telling stories and guiding the audience through a routine.) He may have to work smaller venues eventually, but there will almost certainly be some sort of Cosby comeback tour in the next few years. There's money to be made, and that's just how the Hollywood redemption cycle works.
Consider this: Movies directed by Woody Allen and Roman Polanski continue to pop up — and get nominated for major awards — year after year. Mel Gibson's films still show on cable endlessly. And Seinfeld remains popular, even though Michael Richards went on that racist rant. So long as there's money to be made, Cosby's work will be available somewhere.
So am I still allowed to enjoy Cosby's work, even if I believe his accusers?
There's not really a right answer. It just depends on who you are and what you value.
As my friend and former colleague Pilot Viruet points out at Flavorwire, it's impossible to erase The Cosby Show from TV history. It's simply too vital to everything that's come since, too important to the medium as a whole. And, what's more, the show was about far more than just Cosby's performance.
It was a feminist landmark in its depiction of the cool, collected Clair Huxtable, and Phylicia Rashad's amazing performance shouldn't be diminished just because of the man she shares screentime with. Similarly, its groundbreaking portrayal of a warm, loving, affluent black family can't easily be scrubbed from history, nor can its affectionate portrayal of childhood at all its stages.
Separating art from the artist — or condemning art made by terrible people — is never a zero sum game. You can find Cosby's alleged actions so appalling that you can't watch his show at all. You can also find his alleged actions appalling, yet find they don't impact your ability to watch anything he's ever done — or even appreciate his stand-up.
If you fit into that latter category, don't worry that you're tossing piles of cash his way if you fire up a favorite Cosby Show episode on Hulu. But if you find Cosby to be a monster and want to monetarily punish him somehow, you don't really have a lot of recourse, unless you were planning to see him perform live soon and now won't. Cosby's considerable fortune — the one that made it possible for him to settle allegations against him out of court, the one that made it necessary to try him in the court of public opinion — was made long, long ago, and there's little to be done about it now.