NBC late-night fiasco ranks high on select list of historic TV miscues
By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, Jan. 15, 2010 — More than one commentator has compared the NBC late-night fiasco to the ill-fated launch of “new” Coke in 1985 — an apt comparison since, in both instances, a huge corporation went overboard hyping a new product, only to have to backtrack later when the great new idea didn’t work.
So how does NBC’s Conan/Leno fiasco stack up against other infamous TV screwups? When the smoke clears and TV historians are able to put this story into perspective, they just might conclude that it was, in fact, the greatest disaster in the history of network television.
To help them out, I present this list of contenders for the network screwup crown:
I. “Dolly” (Sept. 27, 1987 – May 2, 1988): Dolly Parton’s Sunday-night (later Saturday-night) variety show represented ABC’s plan to revive the time-honored variety category. The show never caught on but lasted an entire season anyway, mainly because ABC poured so much money into it, most notably paying Parton a non-refundable $44 million for two seasons — in advance.
II. “The Chevy Chase Show” (Sept. 7– Oct. 15, 1993): Legend has it that Dolly Parton suggested Chevy Chase to host Fox’s newest attempt to launch a late-night show after she turned it down. Her suggestion led to the most notorious failure in late-night history (until recently). With much fanfare, Fox bought and renovated a theater on Hollywood Boulevard for Chase, renaming it “The Chevy Chase Theater.” Chase never looked comfortable or even the least bit happy hosting the show and he later admitted that he hated it.
III. “Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell” (Sept. 20, 1975-Jan. 17, 1976): Incredibly, if it weren’t for this failed effort on the part of ABC to capitalize on Howard Cosell’s notoriety by giving him an Ed Sullivan-esque prime-time variety show (originating from the Ed Sullivan Theater), the other “Saturday Night Live” on NBC might never have gotten its famous name (since Cosell’s show had it first) or its Not Ready for Primetime Players (Cosell’s cast, which included Bill Murray, Brian-Doyle Murray and Christopher Guest, was called the Prime Time Players). Those of us old enough to remember this show can still recall the mountains of hype that would greet each episode, such as the show’s premiere, for which an appearance by the Bay City Rollers was billed as the second coming of the Beatles. NBC’s “SNL” was called only “Saturday Night” until the cancellation of Cosell’s show allowed NBC to add “Live” to its show’s title.
IV: “Life with Lucy” (Sept. 20-Nov. 15, 1986): Lucille Ball was 75 years-old when she attempted this last, ill-advised comedy series on ABC. I can still remember one episode in which the elderly Lucy was made to swing comically from a chandelier, a spectacle that instantly told me this show would soon be toast. It was an embarrassing finale to a legendary career in television.
V: “Coupling” (Sept. 25–Oct. 23, 2003): This series would be forgotten as just another network TV failure — of which there are plenty every season. But rarely, if ever, has a show sunk so quickly after coming to the air with as much hype as NBC attached to the launch of this remake of a sexually explicit sitcom from the United Kingdom. The American version’s swift disappearance in fall 2003 after just four weeks (even “The Chevy Chase Show” lasted five) was breathtaking: In the end, 11 episodes of the American version were produced and only four aired.
Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com