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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


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.