Death of the Cosby brand?
BEHIND his affable exterior and patterned sweaters, Bill Cosby built an entertainment empire that earned him more than US$400 million (S$522 million).
But now, the 77-year-old comedian and actor is under siege from sexual assault allegations that imperil future earnings from new projects, public speaking and endorsements that could total millions of dollars a year.
Cosby has not faced any prosecution tied to the accusations, dating back decades. In 2006, he settled a lawsuit brought by one of the women, Andrea Constand.
The latest claims to surface have torpedoed an attempted comeback for the comedian, who spent decades cultivating a squeaky clean image and chiding others to behave.
There had been some rumblings even in September. That was when former Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker was criticised in some book reviews for not covering the accusations in Cosby His Life And Times, his 544-page biography published then.
Then the women started coming forward.
On Wednesday, NBC said it was withdrawing from a sitcom in development with Cosby, while just 12 hours earlier, Netflix shelved a stand-up comedy special it had planned to run the day after Thanksgiving.
Viacom's TV Land said later that it will stop airing reruns of The Cosby Show.
"He was the Peyton Manning of his generation," said Jason Maloni, head of sports and entertainment at Levick, a public relations firm in Washington that specialises in crisis management. "Companies loved him. He was a home run when it came to endorsing products. That is never again going to be."
While Cosby's peak earning years are behind him, he was making appearances ahead of the debut of the Netflix stand-up comedy special and for a recent loan of art to the Smithsonian Museum of African Art.
As a sign of how swiftly the bad publicity has engulfed him, the top of his website featured a statement from his lawyer about the allegations on Tuesday.
Cosby declined to comment about the allegations in an interview about the art loan with NPR that aired on Saturday. He has cancelled other public appearances.
"Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr Cosby have resurfaced," his lawyer, John Schmitt, said in a statement on Sunday. "The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment."
A new statement was posted to clarify that the lawyer's comments did not refer to Ms Constand, who filed her lawsuit in 2005. She claimed to have found at least 10 other alleged victims of sexual assault by Cosby.
Many of Cosby's TV shows, including Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids, are still on air. Most visible are reruns of The Cosby Show, which led the ratings for four years in the 1980s.
The Cosby Show earned the entertainer tens of millions of dollars annually. In 1992, the year it ended, Forbes estimated that his net worth exceeded US$300 million.
The show, produced by Carsey-Werner Television, continues to run on one Viacom cable network, Centric and on Hulu Plus, generating fees for Cosby and his partners, though it is unlikely to approach the US$15 million-plus I Love Lucy makes for CBS each year.
Mill Creek Entertainment acquired the DVD rights to The Cosby Show last year and re-released seasons 1 through 4. Amazon offers the complete series for US$129.77.
Centric did not respond to requests for comment, nor did executives at Carsey-Werner in Los Angeles.
"We're monitoring the situation closely at this point before making any scheduling decisions," said Jim Weiss, a spokesman for Atlanta-based Bounce TV, a broadcast network aimed at African-Americans that airs Fat Albert.
Cosby has served as the spokesman for brands including Coca-Cola and Jell-O.
The accusations against him have been all the more striking because his hit TV show, his commercials for Jell-O and his best-selling books about fatherhood helped him present an image of the ideal family man.
"He can't bring that perception back credibly now," said Jeetendr Sehdev, an adjunct professor of marketing at the University of Southern California who researches celebrities' branding. He called the crisis the "death of his brand".
Netflix and NBC acted after allegations resurfaced that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted women more than a decade ago.
The reach of the Web and the impact of social media have provided a distribution platform for these accusations, which had surfaced before but failed to gain widespread traction. Martin Kaplan, the Norman Lear chairman in entertainment, media and society at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, said a combination of social media and Cosby's return to the spotlight have propelled the story to much greater prominence than when the accusations surfaced in the past.
"The fact that he was already in the public spotlight - the book, the potential deal with NBC and so on - and the fact that these charges have a much more powerful amplifier and echo chamber, it gives people the sense that this is a big story," he said.
However, there appears to be some reprieve for the beleaguered Cosby. The age of the allegations of sexual assault and rape - some date back to the 1960s - make any prosecution unlikely because they are time barred by the so-called statute of limitations, legal experts said. The claims would be hard to verify after all this time, they added.
"You're talking about claims of sexual misconduct that happened 20 or 30 years ago," said Bennett Gershman, a professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, New York, and a former prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. "These are just very, very difficult allegations to prove."
Notwithstanding all the media attention to the women's claims, the damage to Cosby's reputation may be the worst injury he suffers from all the furore.
The harsh judgment of social media will be difficult to overcome, said Mr Kaplan. "Social media is many things, among them it gives people a belief of what people are talking about," he said, "which is something larger than what they see on television or read in the papers."
Prof Gershman added: "It's been dogging him for a long time; it will continue to...It certainly is, in the public mind, going to sully whatever reputation he has in terms of his character, but I don't think it's going to go anywhere legally."