What Will Happen With 'The Cosby Show' Reruns Now?
As the comic's pulled library collects dust at TV Land and Centric, Viacom has a difficult decision as moral clauses don't exist to help recoup money on a tainted product.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
What do you do with a tainted asset? That's the question executives at Viacom have no doubt been asking themselves as Bill Cosby's comedy library collects dust at the company's cable networks, TV Land and BET sibling Centric. The former pulled The Cosby Show in November when accusations of sexual assault against the embattled comedian began resurfacing in the news; the latter held out until early July when a 2005 deposition revealed that Cosby had copped to drugging women for sex. (Independent network Bounce pulled repeats of CBS' Cosby at the same time; Cosby Show repeats remain available on Amazon and Hulu.)
Though execs at Viacom and distributor Carsey-Werner are staying mum on deal terms, several sources believe it's highly unlikely that there was any kind of contractual language in place to protect a network in such a situation. Indeed, it's very uncommon for there to be any moral clauses in acquired series contracts, unless both parties entering into a deal had prior knowledge of the potential risk when that deal was signed. But given how much business Carsey-Werner has likely done with Viacom over the years — not only on Cosby series but also on shows including Roseanne — one network chief says he'd be "hard-pressed to believe Carsey-Werner has taken an intractable stance." Co-founder and Cosby Show EP Tom Werner told The Hollywood Reporter that it was "a challenging time for the show" during an appearance at a recent industry conference, but noted that with time he hopes viewers will "still be able to watch the show and identify with the Huxtables."
According to a half-dozen TV executives who spoke on the condition of anonymity for this article, there are a handful of options to consider when you decide to take the bold step to yank a series. (More common is to pull a single controversial episode, as was the case with Seinfeld's "The Puerto Rican Day" or The Simpsons' "The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson.") For instance, a network can ask that the distributor take the show back and stop charging. Though Carsey-Werner likely has no legal obligation to do so, several sources note the relationship may be valuable enough and the situation public enough that an arrangement could be made. Far less likely in a case as severe as Cosby Show's would be for Carsey-Werner to try to sell the late 1980s comedy elsewhere, thereby enabling Viacom to get out of its contract. Still, the Carsey-Werner website continues to features the Cosby and Cosby Show libraries as available for distribution.
Among the other options: Viacom could let the unaired series sit on its books as it waits to see if the situation cools down, as scandals often do. That's what occurred with Seventh Heaven at UPtv, which temporarily pulled the series' repeats following star Stephen Collins' molestation allegations this past fall. (The family drama is already back on and delivering for the channel, with Up general manager Amy Winter telling THR: "We did some research and found that everybody was like, 'You know what? This is a great family show, it shouldn't suffer.'") In the case of Cosby Show, however, many believe that that route is far less likely, particularly given the beloved dad role Cosby plays in the family sitcom. "In this day and age, it's tough to say something will never see the light of day because of how many ways something can see the light of day," says one exec, "but I can't imagine a network scheduling it."
The other option would be to write it down, a decision a network makes when it's clear an asset is so impaired there's no way it can ever be aired again. But one top exec stresses that it likely wouldn't be much of a write-down in the case of Cosby Show, given where the series is in its syndication life cycle. The Cosby Show was averaging fewer than 500,000 viewers on TV Land before it was pulled; on Centric, it drew about 45,000. Says the exec, "It's a nice piece of nostalgia and nothing more."