Roseanne Barr and Bill Cosby have both made news of late, and not for good reasons. These were two of the biggest stars of the late 1980s and early ’90s during a more “innocent” time. At the end of the 1989-90 season there was a dispute over which of their shows was the No. 1 series of the season. I found myself of the wrong side of the debate, for the right reasons.
Both “The Cosby Show” and “Roseanne” were produced by Carsey/Werner. As the 1989-90 season closed, “Cosby” was ending its sixth season, while “Roseanne” was the up-and-comer, having completed its sophomore run. The two shows were running neck and neck in the 18-49 demo as “Cosby” was beginning the inevitable decline and “Roseanne” was still surging.
I was VP of audience research at NBC at the time, and Bill Cosby and I spoke nearly every Friday morning during the season. He would call for the ratings, and then we would talk about the show and the television landscape. I never met him, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t say that over the years, I learned a lot from him.
Anyway, the season ended, and it was time to send out a recap of the ratings. NBC was again going to win the season, but according to our calculation, and ABC’s as well, “Roseanne” squeezed out a ratings win over “Cosby.” You would think that if the two networks that had the shows agreed on the winner, that would be that, but no. David Poltrack, who was the head of research at CBS and a nemesis of mine, declared “Cosby” the winner of the season.
Here’s why. During the year, ABC for some reason ran an original episode of “Roseanne” on a Sunday night (the show regularly aired Tuesday at 9). Because the episode was outside of its regular time period, the Sunday episode was labeled a special by Nielsen. This was (and still is) standard operating procedure. Although the episode performed well, the delivery was significantly below the season average for the show.
When an episode of a series is labeled as a special, it is not included in the season average for the show. That’s what NBC and ABC did. That’s the rule. Mr. Poltrack, however, chose to include the special episode in “Roseanne’s” average, thus lowering its overall number and putting it below the season average for “The Cosby Show.” Although Nielsen had a rule, Poltrack chose to ignore it.
Needless to say, this caused me great pain internally, but fortunately my bosses and the entertainment execs accepted my reasoning and agreed that the two shows were tied for the season. Bill Cosby, on the other hand, was not happy. I was told to call him and walk him through all this, which of course did not satisfy him. I did get a call from Roseanne Barr, who thanked me for agreeing with ABC. I was truly amazed at how personally these two bigger-than-life characters took all of this.