Cover Story

TV's 50 Biggest Bombs and Blunders

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

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

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