ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For decades, comedian Bill Cosby was America's dad, an esteemed philanthropist until rumors that he had drugged and sexually abused women grew into allegations and now a guilty verdict. Today, a jury found him guilty of three charges of aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team has this look back at the highs and lows of Cosby's more than 50-year career.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Growing up, Salon TV critic Melanie McFarland says her family had something called a Nielsen box on all of its televisions. The boxes tracked families' viewing habits and shows' popularity. McFarland said her mother was adamant about one thing.
MELANIE MCFARLAND: We had to watch "The Cosby Show," and it had to be tuned in to every single television to make sure that our television sets registered, you know, in a sense, our vote for Bill Cosby.
BATES: "The Cosby Show" was the culmination of years of Bill Cosby's work as an entertainment pioneer. In the '60s, he co-starred as an undercover intelligence agent in "I Spy." He made a kids TV series in the '70s based on his Philadelphia childhood.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAT ALBERT AND THE COSBY KIDS")
BILL COSBY: (As Fat Albert Jackson) Hey, hey, hey.
BATES: But he reached his apex when "The Cosby Show" launched in 1984.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COSBY SHOW")
BATES: Via Skype, Melanie McFarland says "The Cosby Show" depicted an affluent, educated black family, the kind America hadn't seen on television before.
MCFARLAND: And it also helped launch NBC's Must See TV Thursdays. So that was a huge shift for the network and really created an aura of dominance for it that lasted well into the '90s.
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: Very universal themed, very common parenting situations...
BATES: That's Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal. He writes extensively about black popular culture.
NEAL: The genius of "The Cosby Show" is that he was able to also bring so many elements of classic black culture to America's living rooms.
BATES: Neal says "The Cosby Show's" Huxtable family - with its doctor and lawyer parents, its college-bound children and its devotion to black art, music and history - made the country's rapidly expanding black middle class visible to the nation.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COSBY SHOW")
COSBY: (As Dr. Cliff Huxtable) Son...
COSBY: (As Dr. Cliff Huxtable) Your mother asked me to come up here and kill you.
BATES: Parents of all races could understand Cliff Huxtable's exasperated when son Theo comes home with a report card full of D's. Off-screen, Cosby not only promoted the value of a college education. He gave millions of dollars to historically black colleges and paid for several students to attend them.
In later years, though, Cosby went from America's dad to black America's scold. He railed against problems in the black community that he said were black people's fault. At an NAACP event in 2004, he gave what's now known as the "Pound Cake" speech, an angry rant about poor parenting and crime.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
COSBY: People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake. And then we all run out, and we're outraged. Oh, the cops shouldn't have shot him. What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?
BATES: Duke University's Mark Anthony Neal says many blacks felt betrayed when Cosby went from ally to antagonist. America's dad was spanking them in public.
NEAL: What we got was America's father lecturing and lecturing at a moment with a narrative that appealed to things like Fox News.
BATES: The dozens of sexual abuse allegations of the past few years were an ironic coda to Cosby's public moralizing. Still, Mark Anthony Neal believes "The Cosby Show," with its baked-in lessons on black cultural history, has value for future generations.
NEAL: "The Cosby Show" was our search engine, you know, before we had access to just google some of these things. And so I don't want that to be lost.
BATES: Even, he says, if Cosby himself can't be redeemed. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.