Successful shows are that way because they appeal to the general TV-viewing audience. They’re not necessarily hitting on niche pockets of viewers or trying to go after hipsters. Those shows don’t make a whole lot of money, and networks are always weary of them. There would be no surprises on this list. We expect that many of those shows get turned down at first and have to fight their way into being filmed. The big shows, in our minds, started out as awesome and were created as awesome. It’s difficult to imagine any of the major shows being rejected, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. For whatever reason, some of the biggest shows in history were denied by some of the networks they were pitched to. Some showrunners had to continue trying for a long time to get their shows made. Others got offers from competing networks right away. As crazy as it may seem, each of the shows on this list were, at one point, rejected.
What we wanted to do was explore not just what shows were rejected but who rejected them and the reasons as to why it was rejected. This isn’t necessarily to shame the networks, although we do encourage laughter and finger-pointing at their great misfortune. We’re allowed to do this because all of these networks make crazy amounts of money despite missing out on goldmines. They pay their stars exceedingly well. Their executives are filthy rich. A few fingers pointing at them and reminding them what could have been won’t hurt that much. Besides, you can’t win them all. Each network has at least one show that makes them money hand over fist, so they’re all winners in the end. Here are 16 Massive TV Shows that Some Dumb Networks Actually Passed On.
16 The X-Files
When Chris Carter was first creating The X-Files, he had seen some success with other shows but he wasn’t what you would call a known commodity. His ideal cast, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, were also basically unknowns at the time. He created a pilot script and brought it to Fox. They rejected it, but not completely outright. He was able to go home and rework it. He did. He changed things up and made it more procedural and dark. When he came back to Fox a few weeks later with the new script, they commissioned it and the rest is history. Today, The X-Files is one of the most well-known and loved shows out there.
15 Stranger Things
After working on Wayward Pines under the tutelage of M. Night Shyamalan, the Duffer brothers went off on their own, ready to create their own television series. They drafted the pilot episode of Stranger Things (then called Montauk) and a 20-page companion book to help their pitch to the networks. It was a rocky road. The pitch was rejected by 15-20 different networks according to the Duffer bros. Every network had the same criticism—either drop the focus around the kids or drop the police investigation; you can't have both. Eventually, Netflix caught wind of the story and picked it up. They had already made a big splash with their original programming and were ready to take a risk. It worked. Aided by the ability to binge-watch it in a short period of time, Stranger Things was the year’s biggest show and brought about a cultural obsession like we’ve never seen before.
14 Mad Men
When Mad Men’s creator, Matthew Weiner, was a writer for the show Becker, he created a script for the pilot episode of Mad Men. When David Chase, the producer for The Sopranos, read the script, he brought Weiner over to his team to work on the iconic mob show. While there, Weiner attempted to sell Mad Men to the HBO network. After all, they recruited him because of it. Still, they rejected it. He then took it to Showtime. They passed as well. Thankfully, AMC was looking to make a splash in original television, so they picked it up. It was a good choice. Mad Men brought home 16 Emmys (116 nominations) and five Golden Globes. It was also the first basic cable series to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series. It did that four times in a row.
13 Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Now that it’s going into its fourth season, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is no longer a secret. Netflix has reaped the benefits of this comedy, winning awards and accolades along the way. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt didn’t start with Netflix, though. It actually began at NBC. Executives from NBC liked Ellie Kemper so much that they asked Tina Fey and Robert Carlock to create a show that centered around her, accentuating her innocence as much as possible. So the two got to work and created what was then called Tooken. NBC went through it and decided they didn’t want it. They sold the show to Netflix and missed out on a huge opportunity. When asked why, Fey said that NBC ditched the show because of the network “not feeling confident about watching comedies.”
12 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend hasn’t hit its stride yet, but the people who have watched it definitely love it. When this little show was first being created, it was done through Showtime. In fact, it was Showtime who funded the pilot episode’s production. After it was all filmed and ready, however, the network decided they didn’t like it enough to keep it running. So the show creators took the pilot and ran, pitching it to other networks. It was then that CW got their paws on it and decided to make it part of their original programming.
11 The Walking Dead
Even though The Walking Dead takes an entire season to finish one small discussion between two characters, there is a huge collection of fans out there who love the show in spite of its unimaginably slow-moving plot. With a firm slot in AMC’s repertoire, TWD has done extremely well, proving that zombies can thrive on both television and film. Before AMC landed this prized fish, however, TWD almost found a home at both NBC and HBO. It was only when the creators refused to tone down the violence, a stipulation of both networks, that they went with AMC, who gave them freedom. Now, obviously, NBC wanted them to tone down the violence. It was a shock when NBC allowed Hannibal to air, but we shouldn’t expect them to completely change overnight. But, HBO is another story altogether. TWD and HBO seem like they would be a match made in heaven but, alas, that wasn’t the case.
10 Sons Of Anarchy
When Sons of Anarchy was first being pitched around, it was called Forever Sam Crow. When they brought it to HBO, the network considered it but a deal could never get finalized. While they were humming and hawing over the details, the show’s creators took their baby over to FX. Since they already had a working relationship with the network in the past, the negotiations went a lot smoother. The chance FX took on Sons of Anarchy paid off for them in a big way. By season three, the show was FX’s highest rated series they had on the air. Seasons four and five of Sons of Anarchy became the highest rated shows in the network’s history. Now, with a spin-off in the works, FX and Kurt Sutter, the show’s creator, are looking to strike gold once more.
9 Ugly Betty
The first two seasons of Ugly Betty were hugely successful, but the show hit a rut in the third season and then sputtered until it was eventually cancelled. Still, it had a very solid run in the early goings. Adversity was par for the course for this underdog of a show. Initially, the show was going to be an NBC show. They had it ready to run, but it couldn’t get off the ground. NBC just let it go in the end. Then, ABC got its hands on it and ran with it. In total, it took five years for the show to launch.
8 The People V. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story took almost 20 years to get on the air. It finally took flight when Ryan Murphy asked if there were any promising scripts that were stuck in development hell. That’s when he found The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. He had been wanting to create a spin-off of his anthology of horror series, American Horror Story, taking it in a true crime direction; so this was perfect. After bouncing around through the various networks for years, The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story found a home at FX.
7 Desperate Housewives
If it wasn’t for The O.C., Desperate Housewives might never have become a hit show. When ABC agreed to pick up the show, Marc Cherry’s pitch had been rejected at basically every major network—HBO, Fox, Showtime, CBS, NBC, and Lifetime. That’s a lot of NOs. But when ABC producers saw that The O.C., a modern soap opera, was successful in a prime time slot, they took a chance on the women from Wisteria Lane. Desperate Housewives wasn’t just a hit in the U.S., it was consistently one of the most popular shows internationally as well and helped ABC bring in boatloads of viewers.
6 The Sopranos
We can forgive the networks for passing on The Sopranos because at that time, no one thought that this type of TV could be successful. Before HBO took the show and ran with it, a partnership that was nearly perfect, plenty of other networks rejected it. The original pilot script was created by some of Fox’s people, but even they rejected it. Brad Grey, the owner of The Sopranos, said that Fox “just came back with a no; we didn’t even get any notes from them.” CBS also took a look at it but ultimately passed. NBC was close but they said NO as well. David Nevins, the senior VP of prime time series at NBC, was very interested. He said, “I had a shot at it after Fox passed. I thought it was very good. But I couldn’t get anyone else interested.”
5 Breaking Bad
When Vince Gilligan first brought Breaking Bad to the networks, it didn’t go as smoothly as you might think. Considering that most people with eyes know Breaking Bad to be one of the greatest television dramas ever made, this is a tough concept to wrap our heads around. At first, Gilligan met with TNT and FX. Both networks passed. The following day, before he took the show to AMC–who would pick it up and go on to win sixteen Primetime Emmy Awards, two Golden Globes, and a Guinness World Record for highest rated show of all time–Gilligan met with HBO. Remembering this interview, Gilligan said, “The trouble with Hollywood–movies and TV–is people will leave you dangling on the end of a meat hook for days or weeks or months on end. That happened at HBO. Like the worst meeting I ever had vs. the TNT meeting…and it was only like a day apart…The woman we’re pitching to could not have been less interested—not even in my story, but about whether I actually lived or died. My agents could never even get her on the phone afterward to even say no.”
4 It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia
There’s been plenty of stories about how It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia came to fruition. The creators–Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton–got an idea for a short film and started developing it. Through this process, they realized that it might work better as a show. They filmed the pilot on a handheld camera and started pitching it. McElhenney talks about his less-than-ideal pitch to Fox: “Our pitch was myself, an agent, and our manager just going around and popping in the DVD and seeing if people laughed. I think we hit seven or eight networks in two days, and we ultimately got offers from four. When we took it to Fox, they did not get it. It was the only room that did not laugh once. I was just looking over at the executive who had a stone face through the entire thing. When it was over, he stood up and said, ‘OK, thanks.’ That was the end of it.”
3 The Big Bang Theory
You may not love The Big Bang Theory, but you have to respect the fact that it makes insane money for CBS. With 10 seasons of some of the highest network television audiences in history, TBBT has made a gigantic impact. Well, it turns out that CBS was very close to missing out on this boatload of cash. When the initial The Big Bang Theory pilot was being pitched–a pilot that starred Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, and two female leads that didn’t stick with the show–CBS rejected it. Luckily for them, they didn’t reject it outright. Since they liked pieces of it, they asked the creators to go back to the drawing board and rework it instead. So they did. They went back and cut out the two female leads and cast the new and current co-stars. Now, those new co-stars are making a million dollars an episode, and the cut leads are nowhere to be found.
In the beginning, Friends was a very different show. Sure, the main concept was the same, but the characters were all different, the cast was a mixed bag, and the name was Six of One. Although it was produced and kept at NBC, the show was almost canned after test audiences and execs hated the pilot. If NBC had anything else to fill the spot it had lined up, it would have. Since there had already been a ton of resources spent on casting, writing, and filming, they pushed forward with Friends. They rejigged it and came back with a plan for the full season. It didn’t take long for the show to become the biggest hit on television and today, it’s largely considered one of the greatest sitcoms ever made.
1 South Park
After 20 seasons and 277 episodes, it’s crazy to think that South Park was ever rejected. Well, considering the content, the language, and the jokes, maybe it’s not that hard to imagine. South Park all started after Trey Parker and Matt Stone created an animated short called The Spirit of Christmas. This short had many similar characters to the ones they would use full-time later on, and the humor was the same. A few more shorts followed, which would become viral videos, and these were used to pitch the networks. It was Fox who gave the creators a big HELL NO. Their reasoning was that they would never invest in a show in which one of the main characters was a talking piece of feces (Mr. Hanky). While that may appear to be a sound business model, Fox missed out big time on South Park. It is difficult to picture South Park playing on Fox, though. They push boundaries a little too much.
Sources: Wikipedia; IMDB; THR; Metacritic