NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt confronted the network's recent public relations nightmare surrounding Bill Cosby in an unusual forum: a ballroom packed with more than 200 television writers.
"We are developing a series with Bill Cosby and a miniseries about Hillary Clinton," Greenblatt deadpanned Friday morning to kick off NBC's presentation to the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena.
Greenblatt detailed how NBC got caught up in two separate media furors: a now-scuttled TV project exploring the former first lady and secretary of State, and the destruction of Cosby, whose kindly paternal image has been ruined in recent months with the resurfacing of allegations of past sexual assault.
Cosby has steadfastly denied the accusations.
As a result of a "critical mass" of accusers, Greenblatt told reporters it was "safe to say" that NBC would never develop a series with Cosby — the man who guided the peacock network back to prime-time glory in the mid-1980s with the smash hit "The Cosby Show."
"I'm glad we are out from under that," he said.
It was only last summer that Greenblatt had announced plans to develop a prime-time sitcom featuring Cosby as a grandfather in a multigenerational family comedy.
But by fall, the network abandoned plans for the show, which was in the early stages of development and had no script, after more than a dozen women stepped forward with accusations against the 77-year-old comedian.
"Look, he wasn't proven guilty of anything, and I didn't want to be the one to say 'guilty' until proven innocent," said Greenblatt, who had spent time with Cosby last year tossing around ideas for his return to TV.
"But there seemed to be so much more out there," Greenblatt said.
As each additional woman came forward, NBC recognized that it was in an untenable position, and the network ultimately canceled the project. "There was no way we could move forward with it."
Greenblatt said afterward that he was caught off guard during the session when a reporter pressed the executive on identifying how many accusers it took to finally act; at what point did the Cosby concerns reach critical mass?
"So 15, yes. Two or three, no?" the reporter asked.
"It was what happened just two months ago," Greenblatt snapped. "Do you really want me to answer that question? So, 15, yes, two, no. ...There were a lot of people who have been in business with Cosby for 25 years. Go ask them the same question."
Many TV executives try to tap dance around hot-button subjects during the Television Critics Assn. press tour. But in tackling the subject, Greenblatt became one of the few executives to publicly face reporters and explain the decision to drop Cosby.
As the Cosby controversy erupted last year, Netflix shelved plans for airing a comedy special starring the TV legend, and the cable network TV Land pulled repeats of "The Cosby Show." Both moves were made with little or no explanation.
Greenblatt and Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment, spent the rest of the session discussing new projects and their struggles developing comedies, as well as the disappointing live performance in December of "Peter Pan."
Last month's live stage performance of the children's classic, which starred Christopher Walken and Allison Williams, lacked the necessary star power to bring in a huge audience as the Carrie Underwood-led "The Sound of Music" did. "Peter Pan" simply isn't as familiar to viewers as "The Sound of Music," added Greenblatt.
But NBC is not abandoning the format. Previously, the network announced that it was developing "The Music Man," but Greenblatt said Friday that NBC instead might go with the more contemporary "The Wiz."
Greenblatt also talked about "Freedom Run," an eight-hour miniseries about the Underground Railroad from the South in the mid-1800s that helped deliver slaves to the North. Based on a book about actual events, the series is in early development. Stevie Wonder is attached to the project, which Greenblatt would like to see eventually turned into a Broadway musical.
The NBC executive also unveiled a project for the network involving Dolly Parton, his former collaborator on "Nine to Five," the Broadway play that he produced.
"What we are trying to do is create some uplifting movies that the entire family can enjoy together," he said.