Magazine article Variety

Public Convicts Cosby in Viral Media Storm

Magazine article Variety

Public Convicts Cosby in Viral Media Storm

Article excerpt

There's the court of law - and then there's the court of public opinion.

Bill Cosby has not been charged or convicted of a crime, as wary commentators keep repeating.

But social media has already rendered its verdict, and by the morning of Nov. 19 - after a week of relentless onslaughts - the comedian had become too radioactive for national media outlets. NBC dropped the sitcom it was developing with him; Netflix decided to postpone, probably indefinitely, the hourlong comedy special that had been set to premiere Nov. 28; and TV Land pulled its reruns of "The Cosby Show." On Friday, Cosby's planned Nov. 28 show at Las Vegas' Treasure Island resort was canceled.

At issue are allegations of sexual misconduct and marital infidelity. The charges and innuendos aren't new, but the climate in which they are reverberating has changed.

Cosby's downward spiral is just the latest example of the hothouse environment for celebrity scandals in a media-saturated age. In the past year, Stephen Collins, Bryan Singer and Woody Allen have also made the kind of headlines that are the stuff of PR nightmares, with social media stepping in as judge and jury.

"Even though you are innocent until proven guilty, in reality, it doesn't play out that way," says litigator Ben Fenton.

The more disturbing the allegations, the greater the amount of news coverage they engender. And there are more outlets on which the public can weigh in, with everything from crude humor on an Internet meme to a lengthy treatise on Facebook or Tumblr. The amplifying effect of that echo chamber is what made NBC and Netflix run for the hills.

Cosby in particular was vulnerable, because his public image has long been that of "America's favorite clad," cemented by his 1984-92 stint on NBC's blockbuster comedy "The Cosby Show." The reason he commanded a lucrative deal with NBC was because of the good will he brought from the "Cosby Show" years and his standup performances, which revolve around parenthood and marriage.

But comic Hannibal Buress revived the allegations of inappropriate behavior during a standup bit in October, and a few weeks later, after Cosby's website tried to counter with a meme generator that was quickly hijacked by the allegations, the floodgates opened. Multiple women came forward with stories alleging they had been drugged and raped by the comedian. These were stories that could not be easily dismissed as situations involving overzealous groupies or gold diggers.

By the time CNN aired a lengthy interview with Barbara Bowman, who accused Cosby of drugging and sexually abusing her in the 1980s, it had become impossible for NBC to produce and market a sitcom featuring the entertainer as a curmudgeonly patriarch.

Cosby's firestorm echoed the swift fall from grace last month of Collins, another actor known as a TV dad from his long run on the WB Network's "7th Heaven." Collins lost a role in the movie "Ted 2," and reruns of "7th Heaven" were pulled from câbler Up after an audiotape surfaced on TMZ in which Collins allegedly admitted to having sexual contact with children. The tape came from a counseling session between he and his wife, who are going through a divorce. …

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