Is America ready for a new ‘Cosby Show’?

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Welcome back to television, Bill Cosby! You certainly have been missed.

The man whose brand of humor is as wholesome as the pudding pops he once peddled may launch a new family-oriented sitcom. Two decades after the demise of The Cosby Show, one of the biggest sitcoms of the 1980s, Mr. Cosby is hoping to bring his signature brand of clean comedy back to the small screen.

Yet Cosby’s potential return to television is fraught with big question marks. The most pivotal of these is whether the return of the iconic Dr. Huxtable, in all of his sweater-wearing glory, can cure what ails television. Can Cosby realistically fill the void he himself left when his eponymous show departed the airwaves 20 years ago?

Cosby certainly thinks so. He said recently that audiences were hungry for his brand of humor — a throwback to an era that catapulted him into the strata of beloved television actors. There is undeniable truth to this: in a never-ending attempt to outdo the relentless beast of over-the-top cable programming, network shows have been forced to push the envelope in attracting viewers. In the process, complaints to broadcast regulators have flown fast and furious, and not just about Janet Jackson’s infamous 2005 “wardrobe malfunction” either. There is a dearth of quality, family oriented shows in prime time, which suggests Cosby could tap a rich vein of viewers yearning for wholesome television.

The landscape Cosby will encounter upon his return is decidedly less hospitable than the one he left behind. The appetite for cultural sleaze, especially in the Wild West of cable TV, has been a force multiplier for the decline of scripted shows. And those which succeed follow a similar (racy) script.

Given the popularity of reality television that traffics in sleazy theatricality and endless drama (yes Housewives and Hip-Hop’s lovers, I’m looking at you), the success or failure of Mr. Cosby’s new venture may be subject to forces outside his control. Season by season, the stranglehold that trash television has on the public consciousness is tightening its grip.

Family comedies, with or without Cosby at the helm, have to compete against juggernauts like Two Broke Girls,  which recently came under fire for its graphic (read raunchy) humor that tends to draw ratings. By the same token, fan favorites like Scandal pull big numbers with near-irresistible plots drenched in controversy and sex.

Central to Cosby’s challenge are two factors. Both the man and his brand of humor are rather long in the tooth at a time when advertisers are clearly chasing a more youthful demographic. Even more importantly, viewer tastes have changed, and not necessarily for the better.

The palate of the average television watcher is becoming more acclimated to fare that falls well outside Cosby’s core competency.  Sports, dramas and procedural shows dominate TV’s top rated shows; simultaneously, comedies taking a particularly tough hit in prime time. A decline that began several years ago has only quickened with the rise of cable, and scripted series tilted toward action and drama. Premium channels in particular have sucked the oxygen from network television shows, making it harder for traditional comedies to break through. Family-oriented comedies like the now-defunct My Wife and Kids have struggled to gain traction among audiences. And lest it be forgotten, the two post-Cosby Show series created by the comedian both fell flat with audiences: Cosby debuted in 1996 and limped along before being cancelled after four seasons, while The Cosby Mysteries was ignominiously axed after one season.

The problem with creating an iconic TV character is that you can never quite go home again. A Cosby revival would be nice, yet the deck appears stacked against him. It’s hard to imagine the comedian replicating the same television alchemy that led to immortal gems like the father-and-son chat about economics Cliff Huxtable had with Theo on The Cosby Show’s inaugural episode.

For sure, a Cosby revival would be an undeniable antidote to what ails television. The question is do the patients really want the cure?