How Bill Cosby Went From TV’s ‘Most Persuasive’ Pitchman to Its Most Radioactive

NBC pulls the plug, Netflix backs away

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Three years ago, as Bill Cosby prepared to be inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame as the first winner of the President's Award for Contributions to Advertising, he spoke with Adweek about the honor. When asked about his greatest asset as a hugely successful (and highly lucrative) pitchman of products like Jell-O, Coca-Cola and Crest, Cosby responded, "I think [it's] my believability as a storyteller."

Three years later, that believability is in ruins. Past sexual assault allegations against the comedian have resurfaced and snowballed in recent weeks, with every day bringing a shocking, ugly new development. (Tuesday, former supermodel Janice Dickinson told Entertainment Tonight that Cosby drugged and raped her in 1982.) The controversy reached its tipping point late last night when Netflix announced it was "postponing" the Nov. 28 debut of Cosby's comedy special, Cosby 77. Today, NBC followed suit, pulling the plug on the sitcom it had been developing with the comedian for next season.

It's a stunning fall for Cosby. As The Cosby Show dominated the Nielsen ratings in the '80s, the actor had the top Q Score of all entertainers, while New York research firm Video Storyboard Tests named him the most persuasive celebrity commercial pitchman for five consecutive years. Now he's the most radioactive, even to the very network that he helped rescue in the '80s.

Putting the horrific allegations aside (disclosure: I worked at People when it published this damning 2006 account of the allegations from five of his accusers, one month after he settled with another accuser out of court. It's a story I'm still stunned never gained traction at the time), Cosby is in this predicament largely because he and his team demonstrated a surprising lack of media savvy for a performer who for decades has had audiences—and advertisers—in the palm of his hand.

The Cosby camp's digital bumbling first became apparent with the ill-conceived decision on Nov. 10 to launch a meme generator for his website, which quickly turned into one of the year's biggest social media debacles. As he granted interviews about loaning works from his art collection to the National Museum of African Art, he ignored questions about the allegations, first with the nonsensical response to a Philadelphia columnist, "Noooo. No, no, no. Look at the beauty of what we had here," and then with complete silence during an awkward NPR interview. Shortly after, his appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman—a safe haven if there ever was one given Letterman's own previous sex scandals—was canceled.

It gets worse: On Sunday, in a statement posted on Cosby's website, his lawyer John P. Schmitt referred to "decade-old, discredited allegations," adding, "The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment." Except, oops, just a day later Schmitt removed the previous statement and issued a new one clarifying that Cosby had indeed reached a financial settlement with one of his accusers in 2006.

Since Cosby's last series (also called Cosby) went off the air in 2000, the media landscape has changed considerably—and has now been joined by the far-less-forgiving social media arena. Back in his heyday, Cosby might have been able to tap dance around the scandal, but no more. BuzzFeed's Kate Aurthur has been doggedly covering the story for months, first when NBC announced its Cosby deal earlier this year, and in September when she noted that the new Cosby biography, written with his cooperation, omitted the sexual assault allegations. The buzz intensified last month after comedian Hannibal Buress called Cosby a "rapist" during a Philadelphia stand-up set.

With no one defending him in public (when you think of all the high-profile actors and executives who rushed to speak up for Woody Allen, the lack of public support for Cosby is glaring), the damage had been done. A Variety survey commissioned earlier this week found that 72 percent of respondents wanted NBC to end its association with Cosby. "The sexual assault allegation charges seem to have taken their toll on the number of people willing to engage with his brand," noted celebrity branding expert Jeetendr Sehdev, who conducted the survey. It's little wonder that Netflix and NBC cut ties with him so quickly after.

"Look at the beauty of what we had here"? At this point, it's hard to see anything but ugliness.


@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.