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TV's 50 biggest bombs and blunders

”The Jay Leno Show” tops our list of television mistakes

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1. Putting Jay Leno at 10 p.m. (NBC)
What were they thinking?
Having agreed back in 2004 to give Conan O’Brien The Tonight Show in 2009 — but not wanting to lose the still (very) popular Jay Leno — NBC execs needed a plan. In December 2008, armed with spreadsheets that demonstrated how much money the network would save on production costs, NBC announced their Big Idea: Jay Leno gets a five-night-a-week comedy show at 10 p.m.!
What happened
The Jay Leno Show couldn’t pull a prime-time-size audience. And when Leno went down, he took the ratings for the all-important local newscasts with him (major markets like Philadelphia plummeted as much as 48 percent). The O’Brien-hosted Tonight Show, meanwhile, saw its numbers drop 50 percent — both as a result of a weaker lead-in and the redheaded host’s less-than-mainstream comedy style. Frantic to right a wrong, NBC Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin announced that he was yanking Leno in prime time, and he proposed turning it into a half-hour yukfest at 11:35 p.m. — thus bumping Tonight to 12:05 a.m. tomorrow. The 46-year-old O’Brien vehemently opposed the offer, insisting that NBC’s proposed time shift would result in the ”destruction” of a venerable institution. Amid a wave of pro-O’Brien sentiment, at press time the host was negotiating a way off the network that would net a payout of nearly $40 million, which includes severance for his staff — though he’d have to stay off the air until at least next fall before resurfacing elsewhere, like maybe Fox. (His last Tonight Show, featuring guests Tom Hanks and Will Ferrell, airs Jan. 22.) As for Leno, he’ll get to return to The Tonight Show gig he clearly wasn’t ready to leave.
Lesson learned
Programming for the bottom line instead of ratings — NBC Universal president Jeff Zucker’s stated goal — ends up hurting both. — Lynette Rice

2. Fox yanks Family Guy off the air — twice (1999 & 2002)
What were they thinking?
It debuted to 22 million viewers after the 1999 Super Bowl, but the irreverent cartoon saw its ratings fall due in large part to numerous time-slot shifts. Fox pulled it from the schedule in late 1999, then aired episodes sporadically until 2002, when they officially canceled it.
What happened
Family fans rallied, making the show the top-selling TV-on-DVD set of 2003, while reruns on Cartoon Network boosted viewership by 239 percent. In 2005, a chastened Fox brought the show back, and it’s now one of their Sunday-night tentpoles.
Lesson learned
King of the Hill lasted 13 seasons. The Simpsons is on year 21. When it comes to Fox animation, patience truly is a virtue. — Archana Ram

3. Cavemen (ABC, 2007)
What were they thinking?
Those Geico ads are hilarious — a sitcom starring the hairy caveman cutups is a sure thing! ”It started in a really true place,” exec producer Josh Gordon told EW in 2007. ”It wasn’t ‘how to make a TV show that could sell auto insurance.”’
What happened
Critics scoffed, ratings went from middling to weak, and the misguided endeavor ended after six episodes.
Lesson learned
What’s funny for 30 seconds can become very tiresome after 22 minutes. Especially if it’s not saving us any money. — Tim Stack

4. Moonlighting‘s David and Maddie hook up (ABC, 1987)
What were they thinking?
Over the course of two and a half seasons, the Bruce Willis-Cybill Shepherd detective dramedy became a pop culture phenomenon filled with lust/hate romantic tension. The combustible chemistry came to a head for a heavily hyped season 3 event, when David and Maddie finally had sex.
What happened
Once the duo did the deed, Moonlighting went creatively limp. (Other complications, including behind-the-scenes bickering, contributed to the problem.) The show was canceled in 1989 — and became a warning to writers of all future will-they-or-won’t-they TV couples.
Lesson learned
Kids, sexual tension is a sacred thing. Save consummation for your final episode. — Jeff Jensen

5. The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer (UPN, 1998)
What were they thinking?
This infamous sitcom about Abraham Lincoln’s titular black butler (played by Chi McBride) — featuring jokes about slavery and Lincoln’s gay tendencies — was fledgling network UPN’s attempt to grab some attention. As entertainment president Tom Nunan told EW at the time, ”This is exactly the show we want to put on our air to say, ‘We do cool TV too!”’
What happened
The series was met with protests from the NAACP, so UPN pulled the controversial pilot and aired an alternate episode instead. The series got the ax three weeks later.
Lesson learned
This shouldn’t surprise anyone: Slavery is not funny. — TS

6. Premature exits
All TV actors should heed the cautionary tales of these three famous faces who jumped off successful ships only to see their star status quickly sink. After feuding with the Bonanza writers and producers, Pernell Roberts bailed in 1965 at the end of season 6. While the Western continued its run for eight more years, the next decade and a half weren’t so fame-filled for Roberts. (He ultimately bounced back with 1979’s Trapper John, M.D.) Shelley Long walked out of Cheers in 1987 following season 5; in addition to pursuing a movie career, the actress said she left to spend time with her young daughter. Long never regained her Hollywood footing (save for her spot-on portrayal of Carol in the Brady Bunch films). Exhibit C: David Caruso, the actor who left the NYPD Blue precinct during season 2 in 1994 to become a movie star. The result? Two flops (Kiss of Death, Jade) and an ill-fated TV comeback (Michael Hayes). Caruso would have to wait eight years to conquer TV again, thanks to a pair of shades and a show called CSI: Miami. — Dan Snierson

7. Coupling (NBC, 2003)
What were they thinking?
Looking to find their next Friends, NBC execs decided the solution was…to launch an adaptation of England’s sex-obsessed version of Friends. ”It’s a provocative show,” boasted then NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker. ”There will be no other comedy on broadcast television like it.”
What happened
With abysmal ratings and protests from groups like the Parents Television Council, the sitcom was pulled by NBC after four episodes.
Lesson learned
For every import that works (The Office, Ugly Betty, American Idol), there are a dozen more that fail (Life on Mars, Cracker, Kath & Kim). — TS

8. ABC overdoes it with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (2000-02)
What were they thinking?
After the Regis Philbin-hosted game show exploded in August 1999, ABC execs used it to fill multiple weak spots in their schedule, eventually running Millionaire four nights a week.
What happened
Though the network raked in short-term ad dollars, the overexposure created viewer burnout and truncated Millionaire‘s reign as a phenom.
Lesson learned
There can be too much of a good thing. — LR

9. Felicity cuts her hair (THE WB, 1999)
What were they thinking?
Producers thought it would be dramatic for buzzy star Keri Russell to chop off her signature long, curly mane at the start of the college drama’s second season, as her character tried to move on from a bad breakup.
What happened
The haircut heard round Hollywood led to a similarly deep cut in ratings — although a time-slot switch and the series’ moodier tone certainly didn’t help. ”Nobody is cutting their hair again on our network,” WB Entertainment president Susanne Daniels later declared.
Lesson learned
There is such a thing as a bad-hair season especially on a network that’s built on hot young things. — Jennifer Armstrong

10. The XFL (NBC, 2001)
What were they thinking?
NBC and the World Wrestling Federation teamed up to create an alternative football league that would attract NFL fans looking for ”extreme” action during the off-season.
What happened
Remember that player with ”He Hate Me” printed on the back of his jersey? He was onto something. Viewers derided the XFL as lame, and the league folded after one season.
Lesson learned
Tough-sounding team names (Hitmen, Xtreme, Maniax) don’t matter if the teams are just plain tough to watch. — DS

11. Terrible late-night talk shows
Which was worse?
The Magic Hour vs. The Chevy Chase Show
The road to late-night glory is littered with the carcasses of those who crashed and burned behind the desk. Pat Sajak. Joan Rivers. Rick ”Disco Duck” Dees. However, the two biggest flameouts have to be Chevy Chase and Magic Johnson. But whose was the bigger bomb? Tough call. Both The Chevy Chase Show (Fox, 1993) and The Magic Hour (Syndicated, 1998) were spectacularly inept. Chevy began his first episode by missing three easy shots into his onstage basketball hoop — and things just got worse from there. Magic’s low point came when he allowed Howard Stern’s crew to come spend an entire hour farting into microphones and telling him how horrible his show was.
Verdict
I cannot stress enough how awful Magic Johnson was as a talk-show host. Still, Chevy was considered a genius of late-night TV from his days on SNL, making his bomb all the more deadly. — Dalton Ross

12. Reality hosts destroy the Emmys (ABC, 2008)
What were they thinking?
What better way to celebrate the Emmys’ new category of Outstanding Reality Host than letting the nominees themselves — Survivor‘s Jeff Probst, Dancing With the Stars‘ Tom Bergeron, Deal or No Deal‘s Howie Mandel, Project Runway‘s Heidi Klum, and American Idol‘s Ryan Seacrest — host the entire show?
What happened
The quintet flopped from the very first minute. Turns out doing an ad-libbed skit about how unprepared you are to host the Emmys is not a good way to start off hosting the Emmys.
Lesson learned
Sometimes it pays to have an actual script. — JA

13. Jackie Gleason apologizes for You’re in the Picture (CBS, 1961)
What were they thinking?
The game show featured celebrities sticking their heads into an illustrated backdrop, and then guessing what famous scene they were a part of by quizzing host Gleason. If they guessed correctly, CARE packages were donated to those in need.
What happened
The show’s first episode was hammered by critics, and the following week Gleason appeared on a bare set to issue his now-famous apology. He quipped that Picture ”would make the H-bomb look like a two-inch salute.”
Lesson learned
Nothing wrong with stars competing for charity, but it helps to make sure the game they’re playing is, you know, good. — AR

14. The Brady Bunch‘s Cousin Oliver (ABC, 1974)
What were they thinking?
By ’74, Greg was about 80 years old and Bobby’s puberty wasn’t exactly pretty — or funny. So with the show needing a cute scamp to shake things up, Carol’s nephew Oliver (Robbie Rist) came to live with the Bradys near the end of season 5.
What happened
Oliver became the patron saint of the unwanted child and lasted only six episodes, at which point The Brady Bunch was canceled. He left an unfortunate TV legacy: The Hail Mary Moppet.
Lesson learned
No one likes the new kid. See: Stephanie on All in the Family; Sam on Diff’rent Strokes; Billy on Who’s the Boss?; Luke (a young Leonardo DiCaprio) on Growing Pains; Maddie (an even younger Hayden Panettiere) on Ally McBeal. And don’t forget Scrappy-Doo. — Henry Goldblatt

15. Kid Nation (CBS, 2007) What were they thinking?
We’ll drop a bunch of children in a New Mexico ghost town and let them create their own society! It’ll be like Survivor, but adorable! As exec producer Tom Forman told EW that summer, ”[This] feels more real than any reality show we’ve ever seen. The kids are incredibly honest.”
What happened
The show got bogged down in scandals like a child-labor-law investigation by the state (it was dropped) and the news that some youngsters accidentally drank bleach (they lived). There was no season 2.
Lesson learned
Viewers love reality TV drama…provided everyone involved is past puberty. — Whitney Pastorek

16. Networks and stars pass on hit shows
We all make mistakes. But most of them don’t go on to win truckloads of Emmys, make millions of dollars, and turn their casts into incredibly popular TV stars. HBO famously passed on Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner’s creation Mad Men, only to watch it win rave reviews and every award possible for AMC. ABC turned down future ratings juggernaut CSI at a time when it was relying on the likes of Two Guys and a Girl for survival. And Rob Lowe could have been known as McDreamy, if only he’d taken ABC up on its offer to play studly Derek Shepherd on Grey’s Anatomy, a role that ultimately revived the career of Patrick Dempsey. Instead he gambled on something called Dr. Vegas, and lost. The drama lasted just five episodes. Thank goodness Brothers & Sisters finally rescued Lowe, as McSelf-Sabotage doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as nicely.— JA

17. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC, 2006-2007)
What were they thinking?
Aaron Sorkin’s much-ballyhooed return to TV after The West Wing featured a pedigreed cast led by Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford and a subject everyone loves: late-night sketch comedy.
What happened
Sorkin’s patented walk-and-talks were not as effective when characters were in a huff about those bastards at network standards and practices. The drama attracted a strong initial audience, but viewers soon checked out of Studio 60, and the show was yanked off the air in early 2007. NBC — which had confidently made an early series commitment before the pilot was even shot — quietly burned off the remainder of the 22 episodes that summer.
Lesson learned
Even certified TV geniuses can have awful ideas. — Kristen Baldwin

18. Joanie Loves Chachi (ABC, 1982-83)
What were they thinking?
In an effort to find a follow-up to the aging Happy Days — while also capitalizing on the teen-steam appeal of stars Scott Baio (Chachi) and Erin Moran (Joanie) — ABC moved the lovebirds to Chicago and got them to (gulp!) sing.
What happened
In spite of Baio’s big-time heartthrobbery, the show was canceled after two brief seasons. Possible root of the problem: Baio and Moran performed brand-new music in every single episode.
Lesson learned
Keep Scott Baio away from any and all microphones. — Adam B. Vary

19. NBC cancels Baywatch (1990) and JAG (1996)
What were they thinking?
Ratings for David Hasselhoff’s lifeguard drama and David James Elliott’s military courtroom series weren’t strong enough to persuade NBC to pick up the shows for a second season.
What happened
Baywatch producers acquired new funding and sold the show into first-run syndication, where it ran for 10 more seasons, grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, and — according to Guinness World Records — became the most popular show in the world. As for JAG, CBS scooped it up; it went on to run for nine more seasons and spawned the hit spin-off NCIS, which recently spawned NCIS: Los Angeles.
Lesson learned
An itchy trigger finger can lead to an abundance of financial regret. — DS

20. Coy and Vance replace Bo and Luke Duke (CBS, 1982)
What were they thinking?
Himbos are all interchangeable, right? So when John Schneider (Bo) and Tom Wopat (Luke) walked out on The Dukes of Hazzard over a contract dispute in the spring of 1982, the studio replaced them with cousins Coy (Byron Cherry) and Vance (Christopher Mayer).
What happened
Viewers didn’t swoon for the look-alikes. Though Bo and Luke were reinstated the following February, the franchise never fully recovered.
Lesson learned
Beloved characters cannot be replaced with facsimiles: A Judy McCoy is not a Julie McCoy; an Allison Sugarbaker is not a Suzanne Sugarbaker; and a Cindy Snow is not a Chrissy Snow. — HG

21. American Juniors (FOX, 2003)
What were they thinking?
It’s American Idol with kids! And we’ll get Justin Guarini to be one of the judges! People looooove Justin Guarini!
What happened
The goal was to put together a supergroup to croon lyrics like ”One step closer to heaven,” but it was hell for viewers who endured scamps being critiqued by judges. After a strong start, ratings nose-dived, and season 2 was called off.
Lesson learned
Seeing adults have their hopes and dreams dashed on national television? Hilarious! Little kids? Not so much. — DR

22. On the Lot (FOX, 2007)
What were they thinking?
”Exec-produced by Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett.”
What happened
The reality show — which followed aspiring filmmakers vying for a $1 million development deal — featured a roster of director judges including Garry Marshall, Brett Ratner, and Michael Bay…but not Spielberg. The debut lost 70 percent of its American Idol lead-in, host Chelsea Handler jumped ship, the live results shows were axed, and ratings dribbled to 3 million viewers.
Lesson learned
Having big names behind the scenes isn’t enough. — ABV

23. The Lost rip-offs of 2005: Surface (NBC), Threshold (CBS), and Invasion (ABC)
What were they thinking?
With Lost proving that mythology-laced sci-fi dramas could attract younger viewers, the networks scrambled to create the next great geeky mystery.
What happened
While the three copycat series went out of their way to ask plenty of questions wrapped in enigmas surrounded by even more questions, the answer provided by audiences was a resounding We don’t care! The shows lasted for a combined total of 50 episodes.
Lesson learned
Some concepts simply can’t be duplicated. — DR

24. Pink Lady and Jeff (NBC, 1980)
What were they thinking?
No English? No problem! NBC president Fred Silverman was convinced that American audiences would love a variety show starring Japanese pop duo Pink Lady (Mitsuyo Nemoto and Keiko Masuda, who spoke little English), with American comedian Jeff Altman serving as translator.
What happened
For five excruciating episodes, Altman did cheesy stand-up while Pink Lady attempted to lip-synch disco hits like ”Boogie Wonderland” phonetically.
Lesson learned
Variety shows are challenging enough when your hosts do speak the same language. (The onstage hot tub was a nice touch, though.) — Jessica Shaw

25. Totally absurd musical dramas! Which was worse?
Viva Laughlin vs. Cop Rock
American Idol. Church. The shower. All places where singing is not only allowed but encouraged. But what happens when you try to add crooning to scripted dramas? You end up with Cop Rock (ABC, 1990) and Viva Laughlin (CBS, 2007). Cop Rock had policemen, perps, juries, you name it, all breaking into song. There was even one tender little ditty between a crackhead mommy and the baby she was about to sell…for $200. The Nevada-set Viva Laughlin tried more for sex (a lingerie-clad Melanie Griffith belting out Blondie’s ”One Way or Another”) and sizzle (Hugh Jackman strutting through a casino while singing ”Sympathy for the Devil”), but couldn’t even pull off camp appeal. It was gone after two episodes.
Verdict
While we have to give the crackhead mom props for actually having a pretty decent voice (especially for a crackhead), the scene was truly one of the most ridiculous in TV history, sealing the deal for Cop Rock in this epic duel of the debacles. — DR

And the rest…
26. The writers’ strike (2007-08) The squabble shut Hollywood down for 100 days — and gave us the execrable spring edition of Big Brother.
27. Life With Lucy (ABC, 1986)
The last sitcom from comedy legend Lucille Ball was a legendary flop, lasting only eight episodes.
28. Central Park West (CBS, 1995-96)
Darren Star’s campy sudser was such a bad fit with CBS’ old-fogy image, Raquel Welch herself couldn’t save it. 29. Pirate Master (CBS, 2007)
This attempt to blend Survivor with Pirates of the Caribbean resulted in…the worst of both worlds.
30. Casting Ryan Jenkins on Megan Wants a Millionaire (VH1, 2009)
The hiring of the 32-year-old contestant — who hanged himself soon after police named him as the prime suspect in his wife’s murder — highlighted reality TV’s reliance on quickie background checks.
31. Project Runway goes to L.A. (LIFETIME, 2009)
Boring contestants and MIA judges meant a weak Lifetime debut.
32. Bionic Woman (NBC, 2007)
Not even Battlestar Galactica executive producer David Eick could make this uninspired reboot work.
33. MyNetworkTV (2006) News Corp.’s effort to launch an alternative to The CW using English-language telenovelas was greeted with overwhelming indifference by viewers.
34. 60 Minutes II apologizes (CBS, 2004)
The spin-off newsmag ran a story on President Bush’s military record in the National Guard…but their evidence was bogus, and the show had to issue an on-air apology.
35. Are You Hot? (ABC, 2003) Lorenzo Lamas used a laser pointer to show people’s physical imperfections on national TV. Stay classy, ABC!
36. Gilmore Girls minus creator Amy Sherman-Palladino (THE CW, 2006-07)
Sherman-Palladino’s voice was key to the show, but the network kept the series going after negotiations with her broke down. Fans got one last, limp season.
37. Turning hit movies into sitcoms
Besides M*A*S*H, has it ever worked? Let’s see: My Big Fat Greek Life, Ferris Bueller, Uncle Buck, Clueless…
38. The Lone Gunmen (FOX, 2001)
The truth may be out there, but the ratings weren’t for this X-Files spin-off.
39. Joe Millionaire 2 (FOX, 2003)
Foreign floozies competed for a cowboy in the poorly received second season that you totally forgot existed.
40. Welcome to the Neighborhood (ABC, 2005)
ABC canned this reality show about African-Americans, Hispanics, and gays vying for a house in a white cul-de-sac before it even aired.
41. The Fugitive (CBS, 2000-01)
The splashy Tim Daly remake got all the hype, but the show debuting after it (CSI) got all the viewers.
42. Hello, Larry (NBC, 1979-1980)
The worst of McLean Stevenson’s post-M*A*S*H flops. And that’s saying something.
43. Casting Eric Balfour in anything Fearless never made it to the air. Hawaii, Conviction, and Sex Love & Secrets flopped. Even his guest-starring track record (FreakyLinks, Ink, The Ex List, Life on Mars…) is problematic.
44. Six Degrees (ABC, 2006)
J.J. Abrams’ name above the title and a post-Grey’s Anatomy slot weren’t enough to interest people in this tepid relationship drama.
45. Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football (ABC, 2000-02)
If there’s one thing football fans love, it’s for some know-it-all to club them over the head with obscure references that require an encyclopedia to decipher. 46. Emily’s Reasons Why Not (ABC, 2006)
It had a big star (Heather Graham), a premise based on a popular book, a big promotional push…and no viewers. Gone after one episode.
47. My Mother the Car (NBC, 1965-66)
Just look at the title. Does that seem like a good idea to you?
48. Networks give up on Saturday night
Once upon a time, millions of folks tuned in for powerhouse Saturday programming like The Love Boat and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Today the best they can hope for is a rerun of Numb3rs.
49. The Beautiful Life (The CW, 2009)
The Mischa Barton fashion drama met an ugly fate after two episodes.
50. Replacing Jane Pauley with Deborah Norville on Today (NBC, 1990) Pushing fan favorite Pauley off the couch in favor of the younger Norville sent viewers fleeing to ABC’s Good Morning America; Norville was out the door less than two years later.