Jay Leno gave up the reins of NBC’s The Tonight Show in February. David Letterman announced recently that he would be leaving his desk at CBS’s The Late Show when his contract expires in 2015. Switching the helmsman of popular late night entertainment is the type of thing that makes network executives nervous.
Talk shows, after all, are the flagships of the networks and they bring in huge advertising dollars. There is a lot at stake for the companies to get the formula right. And the most important component of that formula is the host.
NBC seems to have done just fine in pegging Jimmy Fallon to replace Leno. The network recently announced that it plans to hike its advertising rates for the 2014-2015 season. The announcement that Stephen Colbert would replace Letterman when he leaves met with positive fanfare but it remains to be seen how Colbert will perform in the new role.
President of NBC Universal, Stephen B. Burke, recently told the New York Times that executives wanted the transition from Leno to Fallon to be the “best handoff [they’ve] ever done.” In this recent instance it appears they have succeeded. But Burke noted it hasn’t always been so easy.
“We've had some difficult handoffs,” he noted.
Indeed they have. The 2010 debacle involving Conan O’Brien and Leno is a perfect example.
But network executives often times botch the kickoff, ruining a show’s chances long before a handoff can ever be considered. Remember the host? The most important component of the talk show formula. Networks have picked some real flops. It’s tough to blame them. Aside from the high profile late night shows, talk shows are extremely cheap to produce — sometimes less than $100,000 per episode — and are oftentimes extremely profitable. Why not take a well-known personality, place them behind a desk, and see if a show takes off? Well, it’s been done many times and often with horrible results.
What follows is a list of the five biggest talk show flops of all time. There have been a lot of bad ones — so many that it is tough to limit the number to five. The criteria then? The show had to be truly bad — not just a victim of a bad time slot, say — and it had to last less than a year.
One notoriously bad talk show that is often mentioned in similar lists is the Pat Sajak Show, which aired in 1989. The problem, though, is that CBS executives inflicted it on viewers for 15 months before putting Sajak out of his misery, so it can’t make this list. It gets honorable mention though, because he had to suffer the indignity of sitting out Friday nights for the last few months while executives auditioned his replacement. In the end they gave up all together and pulled the plug.
The plug was similarly pulled on the following five shows, just in a mercifully shorter period of time.
6 The Fran Drescher Show
Those condemned to remember the peak of Fran Drescher’s career as a star of the annoying sitcom The Nanny may be happy they don’t also recall this horrible Fox talk show.
The show was actually billed in some markets as The Fran Drescher Tawk Show (not a typo), inexplicably calling attention to the actress’ notoriously nasally, New York-accented voice.
The executives at Fox, who foolishly thought a host with a horrible voice would be a good idea, at least had the foresight to test the show in six markets before unleashing it nationwide. The benefit of hindsight is hardly needed to realize the show was a bad a idea. Predictably it didn’t survive the test-run. Fox killed it before it could get out of its six-market cage.
To be fair, Drescher has done some good work with her charity Cancer Schmancer. Herself a uterine cancer survivor, she is also an outspoken activist for healthcare reform and gay rights.
With a three-week lifespan, the show is hardly worth mentioning. It makes the list because it so blatantly broke the rule of picking an appealing host.
5 The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers
The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers is entered into evidence as “Item two” proving that Fox executives have made some terrible blunders. Hindsight is actually useful here. Rivers should have been a good fit. She had been, for years, the go-to substitute for Johnny Carson. She had also been slated as a possible replacement for Carson should he retire.
As time wore on, though, it became clear Carson was not slowing down. Rivers jumped at the opportunity when Fox came to her in 1986 with an offer for her own show. Upon her accepting, Carson never spoke to her again. The show ended a years’ long partnership and friendship. It’s too bad, too, because Rivers’ show didn’t survive a full year. So she gets a place on this list.
Carson continued hosting The Tonight Show until 1993. Rivers was replaced by Arsenio Hall.
Sticking a tennis player with an infamously bad attitude behind a desk to interview guests on a 24-hour financial news network seemed like a good idea to someone. It’s unclear exactly who that someone was. It may have been Bob Meyers, who was senior vice president of prime time at CNBC when the network chose John McEnroe to fill up an hour of its programming. And that is about all he was able to do. The show scored an impressive 0.0 in Nielsen ratings more than once in its short life. It was called McEnroe while it lasted.
It debuted in July 2004 and was horrible from the start. Meyers replaced the executive in charge of production once, but that couldn’t save it. McEnroe never seemed comfortable in the role of host. Given the opportunity to be put out of his misery, the tennis bad-boy reportedly opted to hold on for two more weeks so the crew could continue working. Given how bad the show was that was either silly or noble.
The show went off the air in December. That’s five months, so it makes this list.
3 The Magic Hour
John McEnroe wasn’t the first sports hero to bounce out as a talk show host. Magic Johnson may not have been the first either but he was probably the worst. His show, The Magic Hour, only lasted a little over two months. Fox was behind this bad idea too. Had the people at CNBC actually watched The Magic Hour they probably never would have considered a sports star for one of their shows.
It was so bad it actually transcended unwatchable and became watchable in that special way of so many other clichéd disasters. An hour-long train wreck if you will.
The low point came when the network sent Howard Stern on as a guest to stir things up. He made numerous awkward racial and sexual jokes, and at one point challenged Johnson to quit talking like “the white man” and proclaimed himself to be “blacker” than the host.
The appearance by Stern gave Magic a temporary boost in viewership, but it wasn’t enough. The show went on the air in June 1998. By September it was gone.
1 The Chevy Chase Show
There was a time when the name Chevy Chase was synonymous with comedy. That was back in the early ‘90s after a career with Saturday Night Live and pretty decent success with the Vacation movie franchise. Chase probably seemed like a safe bet to Fox (sorry Fox).
But in 1993 The Chevy Chase Show became a textbook example at network executive school of how not to do a talk show. Chase seemed uncomfortable from the start. He was routinely horrible performing his main duty of interviewing guests. Critics hated the show from the start. And its end came quickly.
Time magazine said, “the only miracle about [it was] that the star was still showing his face on national TV by the end..."
Fox cancelled the show after four weeks. For some reason though they aired it for a fifth week, giving Chase an opportunity to continue embarrassing himself.
That was probably ill-advised given that the show now lives on as the worst talk show in the history of television. But killing it quickly was at least one good decision that came out of Fox -- The network that made this list four times. That is an achievement in itself.