The Cosby Show aired for eight seasons on NBC from September 20, 1984 until April 30, 1992. The show focuses on the exploits of the Huxtable family, a well-to-do African-American family living in Brooklyn, New York.
The show was TV’s biggest hit in the 1980s and it single-handedly revived the sitcom genre and TV network NBC’s ratings. Apart from its massive success, The Cosby Show also paved the way for a larger variety of shows that had a predominantly African-American cast, such as In Living Colour to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
The Cosby Show was based on comedy routines in lead actor Bill Cosby’s stand-up act, which were in turn based on the goings on of his family life. The show also spawned the spin-off hit A Different World, which ran for six seasons from 1987 to 1993.
Bill Cosby and his colleagues at Carsey-Werner production originally pitched the idea for The Cosby Show to executives at ABC who wholeheartedly rejected the idea. Lewis Erlicht, the then president of ABC Entertainment claimed that comedy on network television was “Dead. Forever. Bury it.”
At the time, it was action dramas that were really taking off. For ABC, the idea of signing up a show based on a black family seemed like a gamble too far. Meanwhile, NBC was stuck in third place giving the network little to lose in terms of taking a chance on the new sitcom. The network picked up The Cosby Show, at first believing it would more than likely be a ratings failure. It turned out to be a roaring success however, that reinvigorated both the genre and NBC itself, leading the TV network towards a repertoire of content that critics would eventually refer to as, “Must See TV.”
The Cosby Show initially went head-to-head with the CBS juggernaut Magnum P.I., another reason executives originally thought it was doomed, but as more viewers started to tune in, NBC began to realise that they had a hit on their hands with one episode of the show featuring Cosby wearing a Magnum P.I. baseball cap as an insider joke referencing the ongoing ratings war.
The network ended up building its comedy line-up around the Cosby franchise for the next decade and the show made Nielsen’s Top-10 list for all but one of the following 10 years.
NBC’s overall ratings saw an improvement as a result of the success of The Cosby Show and what had been a third-place network in 1984, leaped into first place for every Cosby-led year turning the station into a powerhouse that raked in millions more viewers than its main competitors every night.
Buoyed by the momentum of the show’s success, Cosby even attempted to buy NBC itself on multiple occasions but was ultimately rebuked.
The show’s portrayal of successful, stable black family life was praised by many for breaking down racial stereotypes and showing another part of the African-American experience but it was also criticized by some who accused the show of allowing white audiences to think that racism and poverty were problems of the past.
As a result of the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby, Malcolm-Jamal Warner who played the Huxtable’s eldest son Theo has stated that the show’s legacy is forever “tarnished.”
Lewis Erlicht said in 1985 that he passed on The Cosby Show because the producers were asking for a series commitment based solely on the information that Cosby would star “in a family show done out of New York.” There was no pilot episode, not even a script. The ABC chief said, “There didn’t seem to be any substance for committing to a series, I think that show, without Bill Cosby, would not have been a hit. What I failed to see was that he is a star of tremendous magnitude.”
Here at The W1nners’ Club we’ve got an idea for a TV show based on the fictional story of our publisher’s rise to the bottom of the business world. If any TV producers out there are scared to make the same mistake as Lewis Erlicht did – please feel free to give us a call.