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How the long-dead public-television painter Bob Ross became a streaming phenomenon (and kicked up plenty of dirt in the process)

The late “Joy of Painting” star Bob Ross has become an unlikely celebrity in the streaming age, but some question the people steering his legacy. (Bob Ross Inc.)

This story has been revised to note that Steve Ross's appeal of a court ruling granting Bob Ross Inc. full rights to Bob Ross's works was dismissed after the parties in the case reached a settlement.

Netflix has its towering complex in Hollywood. Disney Plus has its famed Burbank, Calif., lot. But it may be an anonymous office park in Herndon, Va. — next door to a used-computer store just four miles from Dulles Airport — where some of the most cutting-edge streaming work is being shaped.

The space houses the roughly dozen employees of Bob Ross Inc., which controls its namesake’s likeness and steers its future, fielding the numerous licensing suitors who blow up its suburban phone lines. Run by a little-known family-business executive named Joan Kowalski, the firm has turned a public-television painter who died 26 years ago into a supremely unlikely hero of the digital video age.

It also, according to its critics, has provided a cautionary tale of how aggressiveness and lawsuits can be used to steal a legacy.

“We’re busy getting Bob into every nook and cranny,” Kowalski said in an interview.

With that statement, at least, few will disagree.

TV fans of a certain age may recall Ross’s “The Joy of Painting” on their local public broadcasting channel as far back as the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush eras. With his Chia Head shock of curly hair and sonorously intoned catchphrases (“make love to the canvas”), Ross became a cultural curiosity while demonstrating how easy landscape painting can really be.

More than 400 half-hour episodes were produced at a bare-bones Indiana studio and distributed across the country — an endless cavalcade of happy trees and mountains, beautiful lakes and soothing seasides, nearly all in Ross’s signature wet-on-wet style of oil painting.

And that should have been that. Ross seemed fated to be forgotten like so many other niche 20th-century media figures.

It wasn’t. Thanks to searingly modern platforms like Twitch and Pluto TV, Ross has become a mainstay of the digital universe — particularly during the pandemic, when the popularity of a new Bob Ross channel skyrocketed as people trapped at home turned to their televisions for therapy.

Ross provides a reductio ad absurdum for a quiet digital-age truth: A sprinkling of coveted intellectual property can allow a shrewd company to punch well above its weight. You can now catch Ross on YouTube or your smart TV, on “Saturday Night Live” or in a popular Marvel sendup. Soon you’ll even see him as the subject of a Netflix documentary produced by the actress Melissa McCarthy that reportedly slams Kowalski for how she and her parents, Walt and Annette — Ross’s former partners — wrested control of the Bob Ross empire from his son. (That one is not licensed.)

As a living figure, Ross, a former Air Force enlistee who became a sideways American hero, was unusual. As a posthumous brand, he is telling — what happens when the stodgiest of entertainment figures is pulled into the 21st-century world of Deadpool GIFs and Gen Z obsessions, of ubiquitous video programming and hopped-up Mountain Dew commercials.

(Re)making a legend

As pandemic quarantines were intensifying, the executives at Los Angeles-based Cinedigm were feeling energized. A former digital cinema company, Cinedigm had pivoted to creating ad-supported streaming channels distributed via TV’s new front doors like Roku and Pluto.

Cinedigm executives had an idea to create a channel around Ross, and approached Joan Kowalski. “His personality is just so soothing. We felt it would be perfect, especially with everyone stuck at home,” said Erick Opeka, Cinedigm’s chief strategy officer.

In fact, they had begun to discuss it several months earlier. “But we can’t claim credit even then,” said Chris McGurk, Cinedigm’s chief executive. “It began earlier than that.”

Four years earlier, in fact, when a “Joy of Painting” marathon suddenly appeared on the gaming platform Twitch.

The move had been engineered by Joan Kowalski, aided by digital distributor Janson Media. Joan’s mother Annette Kowalski had discovered Ross in 1982 when she took his painting class in Clearwater, Fla; Annette and her husband, Walt, a former CIA officer, decided to back Ross workshops around the country. They soon created “Joy” with him for WIPB in Muncie, Ind., and also formed a company with him and his then-wife, Jane. Joan Kowalski, who had become president of the firm in 2012, saw Ross’s aging fan base and wanted to inject some youth.

It worked. Gamers, in a perennially heightened state, found Ross’s gentle voice and brushstrokes calming. Or maybe they just dug his hair. In any event, nearly 6 million viewers tuned in. And out of nowhere, the painter became known to a new generation. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, which was founded by Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post.)

Joan Kowalski seized on the opportunity. Working with the brand agency Firefly, she began selling Ross-branded consumer products, everything from mugs to Monopoly to waffle-makers. All bore the Bill Alexander protege’s peaceful smile and projected a simple, graspable message: View life more happily.

How much Bob Ross Inc. has made on these sales is unknown, but the dead-celebrity industry can be highly lucrative. The estate of Michael Jackson made $48 million last year; John Lennon’s, $13 million.

Meanwhile, an organic subculture was growing around Ross, with 100,000-strong Instagram fan accounts and bustling subreddits like r/HappyTrees. These weren’t people jollied by the guy with the funny hair. They were men and women who found spiritual meaning in Ross’s fluid style of painting and Zen approach to life, a new religion with mindfulness as its credo and social media as its temple.

With Ross popping, Kowalski upped her social media game. Bob Ross’s official YouTube channel would soon have nearly 5 million subscribers and his Instagram page more than 200,000 followers to go along with the “Joy of Painting” episodes distributed to public broadcasters by American Public Television. She also began peddling Ross to Madison Avenue.

Those efforts reached their apex this spring with a commercial for Mountain Dew. In the spot, an actor digitally enhanced to look like the artist stands at his easel painting a bottle against a mountain backdrop and, in his gentle baritone, talks to the audience about “happy little droplets,” an in-jokey contrast to the soft drink’s hyper-caffeinated image.

Given all this heat, a Bob Ross channel probably would have done well even if Americans hadn’t been climbing the walls over the past 16 months. As it was, it took off.

Opeka says the average viewing time for the Ross channel — available on Roku, Pluto, Samsung TV Plus and elsewhere — is more than double that of Cinedigm’s other channels, suggesting people leave it on as a kind of streaming Muzak. It also is watched earlier in the day, often in the morning. The working-from-home revolution, it turns out, is unfolding against the backdrop of happy little trees.

The episodes did so well that at one point Bob Ross Inc. withdrew its application for relief from the federal government’s Payroll Protection Program. At some points during the pandemic, Bob Ross Inc. was reaching financial watermarks not seen since the 1980s, Kowalski says.

The phenomenon suggests a surprising truth. Shows like Disney Plus’s “The Mandalorian” and Apple’s “Ted Lasso” may be the most obvious battlegrounds for the streaming wars. But a new front is opening alongside it, one that’s less about buzzy new stuff you seek out because everyone’s talking about it and more about nostalgic comfort food that hooks you in when you stumble upon it.

“I don’t know how many people out of the blue would conceive of searching for Bob Ross,” said Jeff Shultz, a top executive at Pluto, which is owned by ViacomCBS. “But they see it on the service, they check it out, and three hours later they’ve watched six episodes.”

In a sense, Ross works both with and against this cultural moment. His calm manner is a perfect antidote to the frenetic woo of social media — art amid the art-directed — even as his short inspirational messages fit neatly within it.

Eric Rowe, who runs programming at Cinedigm, offers a marketing explanation.

“With a lot of programming you have to sculpt the brand around other things,” he said. “With Bob Ross, you never have to worry about brand confusion. People know exactly what they’re going to get.”

Though it might not seem like re-airing 400 interchangeable episodes would require much curation, Rowe brings science to the task. “The Joy of Painting” episodes fall into several categories, and he packages them accordingly — mountain paintings in winter, lakes in spring, beaches in summer. Unless parts of the country are going through a real summer heat wave, in which case he’ll go for the icy stuff.

Marty Brochstein, a branding expert who serves as senior vice president at Licensing International, sees a cultural shift in Ross’s rise.

“It used to be when you thought of something fond from your childhood you’d call a friend, talk about it for a minute and move on,” he said. “Now all that thinking can become a very profitable business.”

But it turns out that windfall for the Kowalskis didn’t come easily — or, some say, ethically.

Deconstructing the myth

On Aug. 25, Netflix will drop a new documentary on its service. The title — “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed” — makes no bones about the impression it leaves.

The film, the synopsis says, is the “shockingly untold story” of Ross’s afterlife, “a sinister tale surrounding his name and the empire that was built on it being hijacked by once trusted partners, whose slow betrayal of him continued beyond his death in 1995.”

Directed by the documentary veteran Joshua Rofé, the movie reportedly both delves into Ross’s life and chronicles legal actions taken by Annette and Walt Kowalski that aimed to control the Bob Ross brand in perpetuity.

An extensive investigation by the Daily Beast this spring also documents the Kowalskis’ actions. According to the story, an aggressive legal campaign was first directed at Ross himself in the mid-1990s when he was dying of lymphoma at the age of 52, and then at Steve, Ross’s son and an accomplished painter in his own right. Steve Ross, Bob’s good friend Dana Jester, their ally Lawrence Kapp and other friends of Ross have taken to calling the Kowalskis’ actions “Grand Theft Bob.” And, the story says, they have been deeply unhappy.

The outlet says the Kowalskis sought every painting Ross ever touched, every art class taught in his name and — maybe most significantly — every episode of “The Joy of Painting” he ever recorded.

“Few could or would go toe to toe with well-heeled, and well-financed, lawyers whose clients had made it clear that there were not many levels to which they would not stoop,” the story said. The Kowalskis would achieve nearly all their aims in the 1990s.

Several years ago, Steve Ross and Dana Jester filed suit. They claimed that Bob never wanted to give up all this control, and cited a clause he inserted into his will shortly before he died giving Bob’s half brother Jimmie Cox and Steve the rights to his name, likeness and recorded work. The upshot, they argued, was that Bob Ross had granted the Kowalskis art-related rights — lines of paints, for instance, or a series of licensed instruction courses around the world using Ross’s technique. But broader assets — including the episodes — belonged to Steve.

In 2019, a Virginia district court judge, Liam O’Grady, found against Steve Ross. Oral assurances Bob Ross previously made to the Kowalskis, the ruling said, amounted to a contract and legally meant he had already given them everything, making the will clause irrelevant. It also cited a series of licensing agreements with third parties during Ross’s lifetime that suggested Ross viewed the Kowalskis, not Steve, as the owner of the licensing rights.

The judge noted “ample evidence in the record demonstrating that Bob Ross gave BRI [the Kowalskis] the rights to his intellectual property and right of publicity during his lifetime” and also cited both a long-passed statute of limitations and an agreement that Cox signed with the Kowalskis in 1997.

The ruling concluded that “Because Bob Ross gave the Kowalskis his right to publicity during his lifetime, it could not have transferred to his son on his death” and that “the court is persuaded that [Steve Ross] does not own the rights to the Bob Ross intellectual property.”

Steve and his partners didn’t have the money to fully pursue an appeal, they told the Daily Beast, and so a short-lived appeal was dismissed after what Kowalski says was a settlement between the parties. And so all that Bob Ross ever painted, all the episodes he created — and, most eerily, his likeness — now officially legally belonged to the Kowalskis instead of his son.

This also includes the physical paintings from the show, more than 1,000 of which (Ross would paint several copies for most episodes) are packed away in the Herndon offices, unavailable to the purchasing public. McCarthy and her husband, the director Ben Falcone, initiated the documentary after long having an interest in Ross and his posthumous legacy. (Netflix’s own involvement reflects some savvy matchmaking, one of the biggest players in the streaming world exploring one of its most quirky phenomena.)

Kowalski had strong words about the Daily Beast piece.

“Most of what you’re seeing from that article is from people who had no idea or real understanding of this company at all,” she said. “They’re reacting to what, I’m not even sure.”

She took particular issue with the idea that Steve Ross had been excluded.

“He was never considered to be a part of the company even when Bob was alive,” she said. “He wasn’t someone dying to latch onto it or anything. He was a pretty casual dude.”

Kowalski said that given this, she was surprised by Steve Ross’s lawsuit several years ago. “We had no idea when we heard from him almost 25 years later,” she said.

Messages to Steve Ross and Dana Jester via their painting-class company were not returned. A message left with Justin Lydell Sallis, one of Steve Ross’s lawyers during the trial, yielded a reply to talk to attorney Mark Partridge, whom Sallis cited as lead counsel. A message to Partridge was not returned.

The Daily Beast, however, quoted Steve Ross as saying that he had stayed away because he didn’t know what had been bequeathed to him in the will; Cox hadn’t told him until much more recently. According to the story, Steve Ross sprang into legal action when he realized that Joan Kowalski was engaging in licensing that went beyond art, which he said violates an oral agreement Annette made with him in the 1990s.

Rofé says he wants his movie to be a mix of inspirational storytelling and justice-minded legal drama. “The greatest challenge is finding the balance between those two completely different beasts,” he said. He added that he hopes the film gives viewers a “deeper connection to Bob. … That they understand his challenges and pains and sadnesses.”

Many of the Kowalskis’ business partners declined to comment for this story. Messages to Firefly and to Janson Media executives seeking comment were not returned. Asked for comment for this story, Olivia Wong, a spokeswoman for American Public Television, declined. Joan Kowalski declined a request to speak to Annette Kowalski.

Opeka, the Cinedigm executive, says the company has worked with the Kowalskis on the assumption that they control all of the material, based on the 2019 legal ruling, which he says is clear.

The optics, though, might be trickier. The Kowalskis turned Bob Ross’s posthumous brand into a marketing powerhouse. But according to a group of his associates — and now a star-attached movie — they did it against the explicit wishes of Ross, who did not seek iconhood, let alone widespread commoditization, and if he had lived might have resisted some of what was being done, and certainly who was doing it.

Participating in the Bob Ross phenomenon by streaming the channel, then, could come to be seen by some as more complicit than just a sweet fan gesture of honoring his memory.

Kowalski could in turn argue that through their backing and marketing, Annette and Walt helped create the Ross phenomenon when he was alive, that the family’s extensive efforts have further fueled the Ross economy since his death and that without them very little of this would have happened.

Joan Kowalski said in the interview that she was not aware of the movie’s existence. “I have no idea,” she said when asked what she thought of it. “We get lots of requests to do documentaries.” She added, “No one actually came and said they were doing a documentary.”

Behind the scenes, though, Kowalski is aware of the film and worried about the fallout, according to a person familiar with her thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity. “She is not happy,” the person said.

For his part, Rofé declined to offer any comment on Joan Kowalski’s actions but pushed back on her claim that she didn’t know this was coming. “We reached out [to interview her] multiple times and were told no,” he said.

The movie’s reported portrayals contradict the image Joan Kowalski projects. The executive has cultivated a down-home vibe at Bob Ross Inc. A call to the company’s toll-free number results in a live employee picking up the phone and chatting with the caller about Bob Ross. Another employee, Sarah Strohl, spends part of her day regularly updating social accounts with Bob bromides — “We don’t make mistakes, we just have happy accidents,” and the like.

Strohl, 30, has the official title of executive assistant. But her role can more closely resemble that of key millennial consultant. She advises Kowalski what brands are cool, like the “Deadpool 2” teaser video with Fox in 2017, which Kowalski might have passed up had Strohl not advised her of the brand’s meaning to younger consumers. Strohl also was instrumental in giving the thumbs-up to the Mountain Dew spot. “I always ask Sarah, ‘Is it cool enough?’” Kowalski said.

Strohl maintains her boss’s line of mission over millions. “We’re not chewing on cigars talking about business all day,” she said. “We’re just a small group of people very interested in painting and carrying on a legacy.”

Added Kowalski: “Licensing and other activities are sort of secondary.” The main goal, she says, is “putting a brush in people’s hands.”

Court documents, however, show that licensing activity is significant. The company collected more than $1 million in licensing fees in 2017, even before the Mountain Dew ad and Cinedigm channel were created.

The curious case of Bob Ross underscores how endless digital space may clear the way for a new kind of streaming business. But it also suggests how such a business can open a Pandora’s box.

It remains to be seen what yet emerges from that box. Backlash and boycotts of Bob Ross — a potential outcome of the Netflix movie — would be strange. Then again, gamers turning a bouffant-haired artist who died a quarter-century ago into a mass-culture phenomenon isn’t exactly out of a textbook either. Experts say it wouldn’t be surprising if the tide just as suddenly turned against Ross products with a “Free Bob” movement along the lines of the recent “Free Britney” campaign.

“The rights are almost always the messiest part of selling a celebrity who is not alive,” said Brochstein, the licensing expert.

“And even if that can all be untangled,” he added, “it’s very hard to predict what will make them popular. Or unpopular.”