Home TV TV Lists

The 50 Worst Decisions in TV History

Reality TV disasters, boneheaded cancelations, cable news calamities, and more

50 worst decisions in TV history

Photo Composite by Joe Rodriguez. Images in illustration: Alan Singer/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images, Paul Gero/NBC; Greg Gayne/ABC/Getty Images; HBO; CBS/Everett Collection, Doug Hyun/AMC; HBO, AdultSwim

THE HISTORY OF television is a vast wasteland of terrible decisions. For every groundbreaking show like Breaking Bad, Star Trek, and All in the Family that got on the air, there are 50 duds like Capitol Critters, Homeboys in Outer Space, and Joanie Loves Chachi. For every brilliant network idea, like NBC allowing Jerry Seinfeld to make a “show about nothing,” there are 100 insane ones, like ABC allowing Jim Belushi to create 182 episodes of According to Jim across eight seasons.

It wasn’t easy, but we combed through six decades and picked out the 50 worst decisions in the history of television. The goal wasn’t to center this on “Jumping the Shark” moments, which is why you won’t see entries about Felicity getting a haircut or Cousin Oliver moving in with the Brady Bunch. We instead focused on choices made at the network level by clueless suits. That said, a few dumb writing decisions — like the infamous Armin Tamzarian episode of The Simpsons — were hard to avoid.

This list could have easily been six times longer, since buffoons have been running networks since the earliest days of television, so feel free to add your own ideas on X (formerly Twitter) using the hashtag #BadTVDecisions. (If you’re interested in how a similar level of weapons-grade stupidity can play out in the world of music, here’s our list of the 50 Worst Decisions in Music History from last year.)

Warning: Some of these are agonizing to relive, especially when you consider that we could all exist in a world where Lost ended in a satisfying way, MTV never aired an episode of Ridiculousness, and NBC didn’t pave the way for Donald Trump’s presidency.

From Rolling Stone US


ESPN Decides that Rush Limbaugh Would Make a Good Football Commentator

Sports is one of the few unifying institutions in America where people from all backgrounds come together and political divisions largely vanish. That’s why it was so baffling in 2003 when ESPN felt that Rush Limbaugh would make a good football commentator. When the news first hit, he promised that he’d leave his political views to his radio show and focus entirely on the sport. Just weeks into the job, however, he shared his views on Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. “I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL,” he said. “The media has been very desirous that a Black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.” In other words, McNabb was being allowed to coast because of his race and receiving praise and credit he didn’t deserve. The uproar was immediate, and Limbaugh resigned within three days. “The great people at ESPN did not want to deal with this kind of reaction,” Limbaugh said. “The path of least resistance became for me to resign.”


CNN Moves Don Lemon to Mornings

Chris Licht made a lot of bad decisions during his one-year tenure as CEO of CNN, including the infamous Trump town hall, but perhaps none were more disastrous than his decision to move anchor Don Lemon from his evening slot to co-host CNN This Morning alongside Kaitlin Collins and Poppy Harlow. Morning shows are all about chemistry, and it was instantly clear that Lemon wasn’t popping with Collins and Harlow. Things came to a head on Valentine’s Day of 2023, when Nikki Haley’s presidential run came up. “Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime, sorry,” Lemon said. “When a woman is considered to be in her prime — in her twenties, thirties, and maybe her forties.” The “maybe” in that sentence is pretty amazing, since the Constitution requires that the president be at least 35. By the Lemon standard, women have a mere five-year window to secure the presidency in their “prime.” “Don’t shoot the messenger,” Lemon said when his co-anchors pushed back. “I’m just saying what the facts are. Google it.” The misogyny of the statement is hard to fathom, and no apology was going to undo it. He was fired two months later. Licht himself was pushed out three months after that. There were many reasons Licht lost his job, but the whole “let’s try Lemon in the mornings” thing was certainly one of them. 


‘Arrested Development’ Breaks The Format With Convoluted Netflix Season

The fourth season of Arrested Development, which was created for Netflix in 2013, seven years after Fox canceled the show, brings to mind Jeff Goldblum’s famous line from the original Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” The scientists in this case were executives at a streaming platform desperate to satiate hordes of Arrested Development fans who wanted to see their beloved Bluths again. But the stars of Arrested Development were all busy with other projects by this point, meaning they wouldn’t be able to appear on set together for more than a couple of days. To get around this, Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz put together a convoluted story arc where individual episodes focus largely on single characters. The whole thing takes place during just a few days, and key moments are seen from several different perspectives, with a heavy reliance on green-screen technology. This was the only way to make the season possible, but it was confusing and simply not very funny. The joy of the show is watching these brilliant comedic actors work together. It falls almost completely apart when they are separated. Hurwitz realized this in 2018 and completely recut it as Season 4 Remix: Fateful Consequences, but there was no salvaging this mess.


‘The State’ Leaves MTV For CBS

It’s easy to understand why the 11-person sketch comedy troupe the State decided to leave MTV for CBS in late 1995. The cable network paid them ludicrously low salaries that forced them to file for unemployment between seasons. And after spitting out four seasons in less than two years, they were drained and ready for a new challenge. But MTV gave them enough free rein to create deranged characters like the Inbred Brothers, Blueberry Johnson, and the Bearded Men of Space Station 11. This is back when MTV was willing to broadcast trippy content like Æon Flux, The Head, and Liquid Television. CBS, meanwhile, was the home of Murphy Brown, Chicago Hope, and Murder, She Wrote. CBS may have briefly felt like it needed to get into the sketch-comedy game, but The State was a very odd fit. The network canceled the show after airing a single Halloween special on a Friday night. “The CBS special was, ultimately, the beginning of the end of the State as far as us getting paid and working on a show together,” State member Ken Marino said in the book The Union of the State. “It was the beginning of us starting to either vocally realize or in the back of our head realize that we’re probably all going to have to get other jobs because there was no place to go.”


UPN Greenlights ‘The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer’

Imagine you’re running a TV network in 1998. You get pitched a goofy show about a Black British nobleman in the 1860s that comes to America and works for Abraham Lincoln in a bizarre horny version of the White House, where the president has “telegraph sex” and dresses in drag to escape the Confederate army. You’d probably throw them out of your office and ban them from the studio lot for life. But the fine people at UPN saw this as a clever way to parody the Bill Clinton administration at the peak of Monica-gate. Nine episodes were shot. Five were aired. UPN President Dan Valentine lost his job. It is remembered today only as an example of just how shitty television got before The Sopranos arrived and changed everything.


‘Seinfeld’ Kills off Susan in Heartless Fashion

As Larry David has said many times over the years, the unofficial mantra in the Seinfeld writers room was “no hugging, no learning.” In other words, there was nothing sentimental about the show. The characters never showed any genuine affection toward one another, and they never learned a damn thing. As the series finale argued, they were actually four complete sociopaths who belonged in prison. But this took this a little too far in the Season Seven finale, when George’s fiancée Susan — a character that had been in their world since the third season — dies after licking cheap wedding invitations. The news of this tragedy is greeted by little more than a shrug by the main characters, and George uses it as an opportunity to try to score a date with Marisa Tomei before Susan is even buried. For many fans of Seinfeld, this was too much. There was such a fierce backlash that the writers placed George on a charitable-foundation board in Susan’s honor the next season, so he’d be forced to reckon with the aftermath of her death in at least some fashion.


‘Lost’ Blows The Ending

When you start writing a story, it’s good to have at least some idea where it’s going to end. That’s especially true when your story involves a group of people trapped on a remote island with polar bears, a “smoke monster,” another band of lost people, and the ability to travel through time. We’re talking, of course, about Lost. The ABC show kept its obsessed followers on their toes by introducing one fantastical plot device after another. They gathered on Reddit and other online forums to analyze every second of the show like it was the Zapruder film, convinced the convoluted story arc would eventually build to a finale where everything would be tied together. When that finale finally came in 2010, it ended with nearly all of the characters in a church that appears to be somewhere in the afterlife. Many of the central mysteries were left unresolved. To put it mildly, fans felt cheated. Their anger only grew when the writers admitted they were essentially making up the show as it went along, and had no clue how all their plotlines fit together. The blowback has managed to taint the legacy of the entire show. TV writers, take note: If you’re going to introduce a bunch of mysteries, be sure to solve them at some point down the line. Don’t leave everyone in purgatory like the people on Lost.


‘The Brady Bunch Variety Hour’ Becomes a Thing

The Brady Bunch was canceled in 1974 after five seasons, but it went into syndication the following year and enjoyed a Star Trek-like renaissance for a generation of fans who weren’t around for the original run. This led to many attempts to bring the show back over the past 50 years, including the 1981 sitcom The Brady Brides, the 1988 TV movie A Very Brady Christmas, the 1990 dramatic series The Bradys, and the 2019 HDTV reality show A Very Brady Renovation. The first one came in 1976 when ABC unleashed The Brady Bunch Hour on the world. This was the peak of the variety-show boom, when Donny and Marie Osmond were minting money for the network, and even one-hit wonders like the Starland Vocal Band were given shows. The problem is that Donny and Marie and the Starland Vocal Band could sing. This was not the case for many members of the Brady family, especially Robert Reed and Christopher Knight. Eve Plumb had a decent voice, but she didn’t sign on for this ill-fated project and was replaced by a ringer, Geri Reischl. The show lasted a mere nine episodes, and you truly need to go on YouTube to revisit the horror of this thing. They sing songs by the Beatles, the Who, and Billy Joel, break out their best disco moves, and invite guest stars like Rick Dees, Elton John, Rip Taylor, and Milton Berle to join in on the madness. If anyone ever argues that television was better in the Seventies, show them any random 90 seconds of this show. They’ll change their mind fast.


The Ropers Quit ‘Three’s Company’ For Ill-Fated Spinoff

Many of the most successful sitcoms of the Seventies were spinoffs, including The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, Rhoda, and Laverne & Shirley. And when Three’s Company became an enormous hit for ABC, the producers floated the idea of creating a new show around the nosy landlords the Ropers. This meant removing actors Norman Fell and Audra Lindley from a guaranteed hit (and payday) for a show that might fail and leave them unemployed. To quell those concerns, Fell and Lindley were promised they could return to Three’s Company if their new show, The Ropers, was canceled in less than a year. In the meantime, Don Knotts was brought on as the new landlord on Three’s Company. The Ropers hung around for a season and a half despite dismal ratings. By the time the network yanked it, the one-year mark had passed and Fell and Lindley weren’t invited back to Three’s Company. Fell later said he felt ABC purposely kept The Ropers on the air just long enough to make sure it didn’t need to bring them back. Whatever the truth is, it’s a good life lesson: If you have a great thing going, don’t risk it by looking for something even better.


‘Star Trek: TNG’ Fires Gates McFadden Before Season Two

As the latest season of Star Trek: Picard proved, Dr. Beverly Crusher is a key part of the Star Trek: The Next Generation family. But back in 1988, after just one season of the original show, the producers fired her. Viewers were simply told that she’d been promoted to the head of Starfleet Medical, even though her teenage son, Wesley, was going to stay aboard the Enterprise. Actress Diana Muldaur was brought in as Dr. Katherine Pulaski to replace her, but there wasn’t a Trekkie on Earth happy with the switch. With a little help from Patrick Stewart, the producers brought McFadden back for Season Three. And it’s not a coincidence that’s also the precise moment the show became truly great. Her will they/won’t they dynamic with Picard fueled many of the show’s best episodes. Let’s just not talk about the one where she was seduced by a haunted candle. Even the best shows can still misfire every once in a while.


‘Westworld’ Confuses The Shit Out of Everyone

The first season of HBO’s Westworld in 2016 was a fun adaptation of Michael Crichton’s 1973 science-fiction Western of the same name. Wealthy tourists in the future visited a Western-themed amusement park filled with hyper-realistic robots. The visitors abused the machines in every way possible and a rebellion quietly brewed. Tiny Easter eggs were planted throughout the season that pointed to a major plot development down the line, like the fact that the two storylines take place decades apart. Still, fans on Reddit flagged all of them. For the second season, the writers put together a plot so convoluted and confusing that the combined mental power of every nerd on the internet couldn’t possibly crack it. The only problem was that virtually nobody else understood what was happening either. The ratings plummeted, online recaps grew to absurd lengths, and most fans simply gave up. HBO limped forward with two more seasons, but it was hopeless. The original viewers never came back. You shouldn’t have to read seven different articles to understand the show you just watched.


‘The Office’ Keeps Going Without Steve Carrell

Many great shows have thrived after the defection of a major cast member, including Cheers, NYPD Blue, Two and a Half Men, and A Different World. The Office is not one of these shows. After Steve Carrell left near the end of the seventh season, the show tried to soldier on by promoting Ed Helms’ character and bringing in James Spader as the new owner of Dunder Mifflin. This led to two dismal, laugh-free seasons of the show that many fans simply skip whenever they engage in a rewatch. In the words of one Office writer, Michael Scott was a “load-bearing character” and The Office simply couldn’t stand without him. 


NBC Cancels ‘Baywatch’ After One Season

It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly how much money Baywatch generated throughout its 11-season run, but it’s definitely in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s quite possibly north of a billion dollars when you factor in merch and broadcasts all across the planet. A great deal of that money could have gone to NBC, but it canceled the show in 1989 after just a single season due to low ratings and horrific reviews. David Hasselhoff knew the show had a winning formula and managed to secure a syndication deal for the it. Pamela Anderson joined in the third season, ratings skyrocketed, and it was soon broadcast in more than 140 countries. NBC came within an inch of canceling Seinfeld the same year, even though it took the network nearly a year after the pilot to air the last episode. But at least NBC held onto it. It wasn’t as smart when it came to Baywatch.


Quibi Burns $1.75 Billion In Eight Months

The internet has decimated attention spans to the point where many people don’t have the patience for videos longer than the quick hits you see on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. That’s why Jeffrey Katzenberg felt a subscription streaming platform built around short-form videos roughly 10-minutes in length would be a big hit. He managed to raise an astounding $1.75  billion for Quibi, which launched in April 2020 with a massive library featuring 175 different shows. It’s very hard to imagine worse timing. This was the first full month of Covid lockdowns. People had endless time on their hands and they were hungry for long-form content they could watch on TV, not short-form content built for their phones. Quibi sputtered along until December before it pulled the plug and sold off its catalog to Roku for less than $100 million. Quibi might as well have taken a billion dollars and thrown it into a bonfire.


David Caruso Leaves ‘NYPD Blue’ After One Season

David Caruso had been knocking around Hollywood for 15 years, taking bit roles on shows like CHiPS, T.J. Hooker, and Hill Street Blues, before he landed the role of Detective John Kelly on the first season of NYPD Blue. The gritty show was an enormous hit from day one, and it ran for 12 seasons. Had Caruso stuck around for the full run of the show, he’d be an obscenely wealthy man right now. But he quit when the second season had barely started because ABC balked at his request for a big raise. He also thought he would become a big movie star, but his decision to kick things off with Kiss of Death and Jade — two obscenely awful movies that earned him dual Golden Raspberry Award nominations — forever ended that dream. He eventually crawled back to TV and had a 10-season run on CSI: Miami, but his story serves as the ultimate Hollywood cautionary tale: When you finally get your big break, be grateful.


The Networks Call Florida For George W. Bush in 2000

More than 100 million votes were cast for president in 2000, but it all came down to the state of Florida. And after weeks of vicious battles, George W. Bush was declared the winner by a mere 537 votes. That’s a margin of just .009 percent. There was no possible way for the networks to have any idea who won the state on election night using mathematical projections. That didn’t stop them from initially naming Al Gore the victor, and then reversing the call and handing it to Bush. That gave W a huge advantage heading into the recounts, since it seemed like Gore was trying to deny him his rightful win when it was truly a tie. Liberals will forever feel cheated by the outcome of the 2000 election, and conservatives will forever feel that the right man won. What’s certain is that the networks had no business calling Florida on election night. It was the definition of “too close to call.”


HBO, TNT, Showtime, FX Turn Down ‘Breaking Bad’

When Vince Gilligan wrote the pilot for Breaking Bad, he initially pitched it to TNT. “They say, ‘If we bought this, we’d be fired,’” Gilligan recalled. “‘We cannot put this on TNT, it’s meth, it can’t be meth, it’s reprehensible.’” He then went over to HBO. “The woman we [were] pitching to [at HBO] could not have been less interested,” he said. “Not even in my story, but about whether I actually lived or died.” Showtime turned it down because the premise felt too similar to Weeds, but FX actually did agree to buy it. The deal didn’t last long since it felt it had too many other dark shows about antiheroes. “Look, it was a wonderful script,” FX President John Landgraf said several years later. “If I had known Vince Gilligan was going to be one of the best showrunners in television, and Breaking Bad was going to be literally one of the very best shows in television, I would have picked it up despite the concept. But the truth of the matter is, anybody who does what I do for a living, who’s honest, will tell you that you’re making decisions based on too-little information all the time, and you make good ones and you make bad ones.”


Fox Gives Chevy Chase a Talk Show

When TV historians look back at the late-night talk scene of 1993, much attention is paid to the kickoff of Late Night with Conan O’Brien and the start of the bitter war between Jay Leno and David Letterman in the 11:30 p.m. slot. In the middle of all that, however, one of the great belly-flops in talk-show history took place when Fox gave Chevy Chase his own late show. Chase was one of the biggest comedy stars of the Eighties, but his last couple of movies (Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Nothing But Trouble) were epic bombs that forced him to recalibrate. As anyone who remembers the original Weekend Update on SNL can attest, Chase can be hilarious as a mock newscaster. But as a real-life talk-show host, he reeked of desperation and flop sweat. The Chevy Chase Show booked great guests like Martin Short, Dennis Hopper, Dan Aykroyd, and Robert De Niro, but Chase was a hapless interviewer and nothing about the show worked. “His Tuesday-night debut was the sort of disaster TV fans will recall for their grandchildren,” Time wrote in a brutal takedown. “Nervous and totally at sea, Chase tried everything, succeeded at nothing.” Fox mercifully pulled the plug after just six weeks.


NBC Royally Fucks Up The Leno/Conan Situation

Conan O’Brien’s 12:30 a.m. NBC show got off to a very rocky start in 1993, and he teetered on the verge of cancellation for several months. But once the show found its footing and ratings surged, the network faced a pretty serious long-term problem. Much like David Letterman before him, it was inevitable that O’Brien would ultimately want to take over The Tonight Show at some point. In 2002, he signed a contract extension that promised him the 11:35 p.m. slot once Jay Leno stepped down. That was amended in 2004 to say he’d get it by 2009. “Conan, it’s yours!” Leno told his audience after the news became public. “See you in five years, buddy!” Once those five years passed, Leno had no interest in giving up his gig. After Leno threatened to battle O’Brien on another network at 11:30 p.m., NBC gave Leno a nightly 10 p.m. slot. For all intents and purposes, he was moving The Tonight Show 90 minutes earlier. O’Brien would have the job in name only. This setup was doomed from the very beginning, and NBC wound up booting O’Brien after 7 months and moving Leno back to his old time slot. NBC had a rough situation on its hands from the very beginning, but it handled it in the most ham-fisted manner imaginable.


Roseanne Torches Career With Racist Tweet

Most attempts to reboot old sitcoms in recent years haven’t worked out too well. The revivals of Mad About You and Murphy Brown were so brief that many fans didn’t even realize they existed in the first place. The 2018 reboot of Roseanne was a huge exception. A stunning 17.7 million people watched the premiere episode of the new season, and viewership remained near those astronomical numbers for the next few weeks, making it the single-most-watched show of the year. After years in the wilderness, Roseanne Barr was back on top. All she had to do was keep churning out new episodes and not say anything in public that would force ABC to fire her. Well, guess what happened? Two months into the run of the show, she Tweeted that Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett looked like the “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby.” The appallingly racist tweet gave ABC no choice but to let her go from her own show. It carried on as The Connors and is still running to this day, defying all expectations that Roseanne Minus Roseanne could never work. But it would be Roseanne With Roseanne if only she’d kept off Twitter. 


Norm MacDonald is Fired From ‘SNL’ Over (Hilarious) OJ Simpson Jokes

There have been a lot of talented Weekend Update anchors over the five-decade history of Saturday Night Live — including Chevy Chase, Dennis Miller, Kevin Nealon, Seth Meyers, and the teams of Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and Colin Jost and Michael Che — but none of them brought the funny like Norm Macdonald. If you need proof, check out YouTube montages of his O.J. Simpson quips. He pounded Simpson throughout the entire murder trial, and it somehow never grew stale. “Well, it is finally official,” he said after the former football star was acquitted. “Murder is legal in the state of California.” The bit worked for nearly every viewer of the show besides the one that truly mattered: NBC West Coast division President Don Ohlmeyer, who happened to be an extremely close friend of Simpson. He begrudgingly put up with Macdonald’s O.J. jokes during the trial, but he lost his mind when Macdonald kept making references to Simpson in the months that followed. Midway through the 1997-98 season, he fired Macdonald from Weekend Update. “Lorne’s point at the time was, just do it for the rest of the season and we’ll make a change in the summer,” Ohlmeyer recalled in the SNL oral history Live From New York. “And he probably was right.” Neither of them were right. They should have kept Macdonald in that chair for the remainder of his natural life. Kicking him out was an absolute travesty.


Fox Passes on the ‘Sopranos’

Here’s a list of television shows that Fox decided to bring onto its airwaves in 1999: the Jay Mohr Hollywood satire Action (canceled after eight episodes), the shameless Who Wants to Be a Millionaire knockoff Greed (canceled before it could even give out the grand prize), and the Chris Carter-produced science fiction show Harsh Realm, about humans trapped in a virtual simulation (canceled after nine episodes). Here’s the name of a show they rejected after reading a script for the pilot: The Sopranos. This gave HBO the opportunity to pick up the show, creating an entirely new era of television where networks like Fox became hopelessly passé. The shift of quality programming from broadcast TV to cable and eventually streaming would have likely happened anyway, and The Sopranos probably wouldn’t have worked on Fox, but it was still an enormous mistake for the network to turn down arguably the greatest show in the history of television. (CBS was willing to take a chance on David Chase’s ambitious project, but it wanted to ditch the psychiatry angle.)


NBC Turns Donald Trump Into a Television Titan

Before NBC put The Apprentice on the air in 2004, Donald Trump was little more than a punchline. His real-estate ventures were hemorrhaging cash and his attempt at starting an Atlantic City casino empire had ended in bankruptcy. If he’d simply placed the massive inheritance he received from his father in the bank and let the interest grow over the years, he would likely have been much better off financially. But thanks to NBC and the work of Australian reality-TV kingpin Mark Burnett, The Apprentice transformed Trump into a genius-level titan of big business in the minds of countless TV viewers. The fact that the whole thing was a charade mattered not one tiny iota. The Apprentice was NBC’s biggest hit for several years. It played a huge role in setting the stage for his successful 2016 run for the presidency. Along the way, NBC let him host Saturday Night Live and appear on Jimmy Fallon’s couch, where he received a playful hair tussle from the host. MSNBC has spent the past eight years pounding Trump every single night. If it wants to look for the root cause of his political career, however, it just need to peek down the hall to the entertainment division of its parent company. This is on them.


NBC cancels ‘Freaks and Geeks’

Few shows in TV history captured the agony of adolescence better than Freaks and Geeks. Series creator Paul Feig drew inspiration from his own childhood in suburban Michigan, and in one of the greatest casting moves in Hollywood history, thanks to industry legend Allison Jones, brought together Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Busy Phillips, Linda Cardellini, Samm Levine, and John Francis Daley when they were all completely unknown. But despite incredible reviews and an average weekly viewership that hovered around 6 million, NBC pulled the plug before they could even air all the episodes they shot for the first season. If a show wasn’t pulling in Friends-like numbers, the network simply wasn’t interested. A huge cult has grown around Freaks and Geeks over the past two decades, along with questions about where the show could have gone in Seasons Two, Three, and beyond that we’ll never be able to answer.