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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


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.