A GENERATION AGO, with sitcoms widely written off for dead, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner sold NBC “The Cosby Show.” It’s coming up on a quarter-century, in fact, from the day in 1984 when NBC announced its lineup, which that fall proceeded to turn the TV world on its collective ear.
Things have changed. The kind of family-gathers-’round-the-TV-hearth viewing embodied by “Cosby” happens with less and less frequency. Given that, I wondered how that initial pitch might have gone if the producers had taken the project to a network today, peddling the same concept in 2009.
Zoom in on a development executive’s office, past the bottled water.
Executive: So what’s the pitch?
Producer: There’s a doctor, he’s married to a lawyer, and the have five beautiful kids, from young adult to a first-grader.
Executive: Hmm. Is the wife the governor of Alaska or something?
Producer: No. It’s completely apolitical. It’s really just a sweet, nuclear family, dealing with everyday problems.
Executive: So one of the teenagers gets pregnant? That ABC Family thing did gangbusters for them, and it wasn’t even very good.
Producer: No, nothing that serious. They argue about haircuts and what the girls wear and how the boy is doing in school. That sort of thing.
Executive: You’re kidding, right?
Producer: The show will be funny, but no, I am not kidding right now.
Executive: Then how do we promote this? The marketing guys will throw a fit if we pick that up. That sounds softer than baby food.
You do understand that we’re managing for margins now. Are there at least product-integration possibilities? I’m concerned how we monetize this.
Producer: Well, the star, Mr. Cosby, could eat a lot of Jell-O pudding.
Executive: What about medical equipment? Or perhaps he could suggest certain over-the-counter drugs to his patients. What kind of doctor is he?
Producer: An ob-gyn. But you almost never see him in the office. Most of it just takes place around the house.
Executive (Sighs. Sips bottled water. Looks pensive): Is there anything else?
Producer: The family is African-American. But they never really mention it. Race isn’t an issue. They’re just a family.
Executive: I like that. Very post-Obama. Maybe they could have an eccentric mixed-race couple as neighbors.
Producer: That would be “The Jeffersons,” and no, tonally, that probably wouldn’t work.
Executive: What about the online component. Have you thought about Webisodes? Perhaps the kids have some friends that could be spun off for the Web.
Producer: We’re still trying to figure out how we do the episodes, actually. And at least initially you don’t see much of the kids’ friends. It’s more about family dynamics and parenting.
Executive: And this would be shot how? Maybe an edgy hand-held camera look?
Producer: Multicamera, like an ordinary sitcom.
Executive: You’re killing me here! That’s like, so CBS. And that’s mostly because a lot of their audience still thinks it’s 1984. Half of them don’t even know you can use the remote control to flip away from things.
I’m sorry, but I’m just not certain about this family idea. I get that the economy is bad, but this seems more suited to Nickelodeon or something.
Producer: At least you didn’t say BET.
Executive: This whole thing just seems to lack sizzle. Could we give him a couple of sexy nurses?
Producer: We could, but I think that would be a completely different show. Besides, that’s one of those flourishes that Aaron Spelling would have incorporated.
Junior executive: Aaron who?
Producer: Never mind. Look, we understand if this is a rough fit for you, but we really think that “Cosby” has break-out potential.
Producer’s agent: Or hey, he could be a single dad. We’re not necessarily wedded to the happy family stuff.
Producer (through gritted teeth): Keep that up and I’ll start returning those calls from CAA.
Executive: The only way I can see this working is if we can do it very, very inexpensively. Where were you planning to shoot? Canada? New Mexico? Michigan?
Executive: Right. Well, thanks for coming. Sorry we don’t validate parking anymore.
Producer: Times are tough all over.