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‘Cosby’ Finale: Not All Drama Was in the Streets

Television: Bill Cosby recorded two messages for Channel 4 to be used on his show--one in case it was preempted by riot coverage and another if it ran as scheduled.

The finale of “The Cosby Show"--broadcast Thursday during the riots that followed the Rodney G. King beating verdict--turned out to be much more than just a show business event for Los Angeles viewers.

With the killing, looting and fires spreading--and audiences bound to disagree on the appropriateness of KNBC-TV Channel 4 showing the comedy program--dramatic steps were taken to cover all bases.

Cosby recorded two brief TV messages specifically for the Los Angeles station on Thursday--one in case the much-ballyhooed one-hour episode was not shown, the other in the event that it was. When KNBC decided late in the day to go ahead with the episode, it ended the program with a taped statement by the comedian, who said:

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“Let us all pray that everyone from the top of the government down to the people in the streets . . . would all have good sense. And let us pray for a better tomorrow, which starts today.”

Vallee Bunting, a press aide for Mayor Tom Bradley, said Friday that Cosby, who was in New York, had been in touch with Bradley’s office Thursday about making a statement on the upheaval in Los Angeles.

Said Bunting: “The mayor asked for him to do (a) public-service announcement. Bill Cosby’s office called the mayor and asked what Mr. Cosby could say on the show, because he had committed his time to making some kind of statement, a comment about what was going on in Los Angeles. So he asked the mayor for some kind of counsel.”

When KNBC General Manager Reed Manville finally decided to go ahead with the program, it was introduced on the air, amid coverage of the riots, by anchor Jess Marlow, who said:

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“Today Mayor Bradley urged us to stay home, stay off the streets and watch ‘The Cosby Show.’ We believe we need this time (as) a cooling-off period . . . to remember what our Thursday nights were like before this all began. If major events dictate, be assured that we will return immediately.”

Skeptics of TV motives might well have noted that the series finale was hugely ballyhooed, that the networks are now engaged in the May ratings sweeps and that Los Angeles has a major impact on the competition because it is the nation’s second largest market, next to New York.

Others, however, could argue that despite all this, the broadcast about a beloved black TV family--headed by the nation’s favorite father--might indeed have a positive effect, at least to the extent of giving a sense of some breathing room amid chaos.

During the “Cosby” finale, viewers could find coverage on a half-dozen other TV stations that were reporting the ongoing tragedy, which erupted shortly after four policemen were acquitted of the videotaped beating of King in March, 1991.

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In addition, other stations also used the evening to present minority celebrities giving their views of the unending, numbing events. KCOP Channel 13 presented one of its stars, Arsenio Hall, wearing a green ribbon that symbolically opposed violence. Said Hall: “We must stop the violence. . . . What are teen-agers doing with grenades?” Actor Edward James Olmos also turned up on TV to discuss the situation.

According to NBC, about 200 phone calls were received during the “Cosby” broadcast. Said NBC spokeswoman Pat Schultz: “The majority of them were favorable. They were glad that KNBC made the decision to air it. And some people asked if they would air it again because they came in midway.”

Some viewers might have missed all or part of the program because KNBC had earlier goofed and ran Cosby’s other statement--the one that was prepared if the episode was not shown. The station later corrected this on a newscast.

But it’s possible that the goof partly lessened the L.A. tune-in for the episode. Overnight ratings for 25 major markets gave “The Cosby Show” a potent 29.4 rating and a 44% share of the audience. In Los Angeles, NBC recorded a 24.4 rating and 33% share.

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Perhaps significantly, there was only a 28 share during the first half hour in L.A. but a 36 share for the last half as viewers became more aware that the program was on.

In the national ratings, the finale earned a 28 rating and 45% share.

Reached by phone Friday at NBC in New York, Cosby was asked if he thought the episode should have been broadcast in this particular week in Los Angeles.

“Yes,” he said. “At first, I didn’t really feel that this would be a part of what was going on in real life. However, I do recall that when Dr. (Martin Luther) King was shot, when John F. Kennedy was shot, I wanted something to take me away from the horror.

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“So I was happy they decided to go with (‘The Cosby Show’) because there was a family in the show that for eight years had given people a good feeling about themselves.”

According to an NBC representative, the call on whether to run “The Cosby Show” was KNBC’s: “In a situation like this, the network lets the affiliate make the decision because they’re the ones in the area and know the situation.”

KNBC spokeswoman Regina Miyamoto added that some viewers who called “said it was a good decision and some people said we should have stayed with the coverage.”

While it is true that an affiliate station often makes programming calls on its own, KNBC is owned and operated by NBC. And some sources said that, whether or not the call was in fact the station’s, discussions encouraging the broadcast of the show took place at a higher level.

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David Brokaw, Cosby’s Los Angeles-based spokesman, said Friday that the comedian “was told at one point that they were thinking of not showing the episode. And he understood that.

“He also called me at 7 a.m. Thursday and instructed me to cancel his performance at the Celebrity Theater in Anaheim for Saturday and the Circle Theater in San Carlos on Sunday. I was told to explain that it was his feeling that until civil order was restored (in Los Angeles), a concert appearance was not appropriate at this time. And this was hours before others started canceling events in the city.

“We were deluged with phone calls asking him to come on virtually every major news program to discuss the riots.”

Brokaw said that Cosby taped his tagged-on KNBC statement after first looking at a copy of Thursday morning’s interview with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) on NBC’s “Today” show, where she discussed the Los Angeles troubles with co-anchor Katie Couric.

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In the interview, Waters, who represents the Watts area, said in part: “I’m very pained by the fact that people’s anger has spilled over into the streets. I understand the anger, however. I’m just as angry as they are. I think we had an opportunity to avoid this.

“The world saw the videotape. Rodney King was brutally beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers. It can be debated every which way that anyone wants to debate it. The fact of the matter is it did occur.”

In the telephone interview Friday, Cosby said:

“It is very difficult to look at the (King) tape and feel that this is not excessive force. And obviously the people were waiting for some kind of reprimand. And when they got and saw nothing at all, the response came. Now, how do you say these people are irresponsible without first committing responsibility to a verdict? I don’t understand.”

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Cosby added that he wanted to “make clear that I am as sick about people pulling an innocent person (out of) a car or seeing someone run after them and attacking them.” But he emphasized that people who have acted responsibly during the riots should not be overlooked.

Brokaw said that Bradley’s office had asked Cosby “to make an appeal to the Los Angeles community, some kind of calming message to the community.” Bunting said that Bradley “is enlisting the entertainment community to make statements regarding the violence.”

In the end, the broadcasting of “The Cosby Show” while violence was still occurring is bound to cause differences of opinion. Some areas of Los Angeles looked and smelled like battlefields. As the comedy episode began, TV was showing fires from Hollywood Boulevard to lesser-known parts of town.

The transition from tragedy to comedy was difficult. KNBC wisely used the trustworthy presence of Marlow to make that transition. But even here, his first comments smelled somewhat of show-biz promotion:

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“For eight years, ‘The Cosby Show’ has made us laugh, has made us cry, has made us think. ‘The Cosby Show’ has been a breath of fresh air in a sometimes crazy and chaotic world. Tonight is the final episode of ‘The Cosby Show'--their farewell.”

Given all that, there is the most essential fact that the story was being well-covered on many stations, that it had not escalated any more dramatically at that moment than in recent hours--and that even if this piece of comedy kept just a few people off the streets or gave just a momentary calm to a troubled city, perhaps it was worth it.

In a world where TV has become the ultimate reality, it may have lessened the numbness for some viewers.


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