The Influence of ‘The Cosby Show’ on Television

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Note: as part of Throwback Thursday, I’m posting this piece I wrote in the fall of 2013 for my Reporting Entertainment and Pop Culture class. The assignment was to select a decade from 1960 to present and write a paper (650-800 words) on the transformative effect of a television program in that decade. This was obviously written before the Cosby rape allegations, and does not reflect that aspect of Cosby’s career (especially in my conclusion).

It was 1984. The sitcoms of the ’70s such as M*A*S*H and Barney Miller were gone, and the few that were on the air such as Cheers and Newhart were not doing well in the ratings (The AV Club). But head of NBC’s entertainment division Brandon Tartikoff offered comedian Bill Cosby the ability to create a sitcom based on situations in Cosby’s comedy act (Wikipedia) – and history was about to be made.

The Cosby Show sounds like a simple idea on the surface. A situation comedy about a family – and that was about it – it became the precursor to such shows as Roseanne, Everyone Loves Raymond, and even Modern Family. It worked best when Cosby was allowed to be Cosby, the comedy coming from the various family situations and Cosby’s reactions to them.

The show didn’t necessarily single-handedly revive the sitcom genre in the mid-’80s, but the fact that in it’s first year it ranked #3 in the ratings proves that it was a major contributing force. Many sources often cite The Cosby Show as helping launch NBC back into the ratings game. Why? Tartikoff gambled on the idea that audiences would be willing to stick around after it was over to watch similar shows, and created what is now known as “Must See TV” – a block of time, usually two hours, that are filled with sitcoms that are all loosely similar in nature. As a result, the television sitcom and how we watched TV was never the same.

It ran for eight seasons, and was #1 in the ratings for five of them consecutively, being one of only three TV shows to do that. It spawned the spinoff A Different World. The Cosby Show is usually at the top of any list of top TV shows (CBS News and Time) and Bravo listed the character of Cliff Huxtable as one of the top 100 greatest television characters. It received numerous awards: six Emmys (most in 1985 and 1986), as well as NAACP Image Awards and a Peabody Award.

The Cosby Show also broke grounds just in its basic setup. This was really the first time since The Jeffersons Americans saw an African American family that was educated and successful. On top of that, it was a sitcom about a family that just happened to be African American: not a sitcom about an African American family. That concept broke open racial stereotypes in television in ways that had really never been seen before. Cosby was determined to show that African Americans could be more than blue collar workers, making sure that the children were shown being interested in attending college (AV Club) – and, in fact, going to college was the basis for the spinoff series.

The legacy of The Cosby Show is still seen today. From silly things like the character of Dr. Hibbert, an obvious parody/homage to Cliff Huxtable on The Simpsons, to more serious matters like the selling of Cosby’s sweaters he wore during the show to help raise funds for the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation, a charity named for Cosby’s son who was murdered in 1997, the influence of this sitcom still holds meaning despite that it was on TV almost 30 years ago. The New York Times even wrote an article arguing that part of the reason Barack Obama was able to be elected president was due to the success of The Cosby Show and the Huxtable family.

While The Cosby Show was instrumental in transforming television, making the idea of an upper-class African American family more acceptable to the audience, Cosby is still crusading for the concept of stronger values in the African American community. He has been touring as a speaker, and appeared on CNN with Don Lemon, talking about the “modern black man” and how they need to take more responsibility in the community and as fathers (Mediaite).

It is now 2013. Television is no longer bound by the three networks, and the Internet has made it possible to have a fandom for any interest, no matter how specific. The concept of “Must See TV” is no longer bound by a single network, and cable TV – which was still in its infancy when The Cosby Show premiered – is now a dominant source of entertainment media. And yet, the concept of a family sitcom is still a ratings success as seen by Modern Family. The snapshot of the American family as told by Bill Cosby not only changed history in its own time, but paved the way for other shows to do the same today.