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Stupid Business Decisions: ABC Passes on "The Cosby Show"


The company's producers thought television comedy was dead.

In 1984, the typical American sitcom was as stagnant as Bill Cosby's career.

In 1985, The Cosby Show was pulling in nearly 30 million viewers a night, and "The Cos" was an A-list celebrity.

That one year gave birth to The Cosby Show on NBC, now NBC Universal (GE), where it ranked number-one in the Nielsen ratings for five straight seasons and made The Huxtables an instantly recognizable family across the country. Cosby -- who had twice attempted to make it big with his own TV series -- would never again be seen as a prime-time failure.

But before this television phenomenon could take off, it had to overcome a few hurdles -- most notably ABC's (DIS) decision to turn it down.

Bill Cosby and his teammates at the famed Carsey-Werner production company originally pitched The Cosby Show to executives at ABC. They rejected the premise. Lewis Erlicht, then president of ABC Entertainment, claimed that comedy on network television was "dead. Forever. Bury it."

At the time, action-packed dramas were taking off. For ABC, the idea of signing a show based on a black family seemed like a gamble too risky to take.

NBC, on the other hand, was stuck in third place at the most valuable time slots, giving it little to lose by taking a chance with the sitcom. The network picked up The Cosby Show, originally believing it would likely be a ratings dud. It turned into a smashing success that reinvigorated both the genre and NBC itself, leading NBC toward a lineup that critics would eventually call "Must See TV."

Check out scenes from the pilot episode of The Cosby Show below:

The Cosby Show first went up against the CBS (CBS) juggernaut Magnum P.I., another reason it originally appeared doomed. But as more and more viewers tuned in, NBC knew it had a hit on its hands. (In one episode of his show, Cosby wore a Magnum P.I. baseball cap as an insider joke referring to the ratings war.) The network ended up building its comedy lineup around the franchise for the next decade. The show made Nielsen's Top-10 list for all but one of the following 10 years.

NBC's overall ratings also saw a strong improvement with Bill Cosby on the screen. What was a third-place network in 1984 jumped into first for every Cosby-led year but his last, turning the station into a powerhouse that raked in millions more viewers than its main competitors every night.

With the momentum of his show's success, Cosby even attempted to buy NBC itself multiple times, but was rebuked. When NBC brought his show to a close, Cosby went on to star in Cosby, another sitcom (this time produced by CBS), and host Kids Say the Darndest Things.

NBC is now back in the basement of television's "big three," having set a historic low for prime-time viewers just last year. (See Ten Ways NBC Can Save Itself.)

After dominating small-screen comedy with both The Cosby Show and, later, Roseanne, Carsey-Werner Productions lost millions developing a few total bombs, including Whoopi and The Tracy Morgan Show. It has "wound down" its television production efforts and now produces movies for Viacom (VIA).

Meanwhile, ABC has languished in second place of late, unable to fight back against CBS's steady stream of CSI- and NCIS-style crime dramas.

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