7 Of The Most Expensive Flops In Television History

Movie bombs get all the publicity and airtime due to the gaudy amounts of money sometimes lost, but as the recent Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien fiasco proved TV is also pretty good at pissing away money. Entertainment Weekly put out a list of TV’s 50 biggest bombs in this week’s issue, but they are focused more on bad decisions. We’re more about the dollars and cents here, so we’ve put together a list of 7 of the worst flops in TV history, based purely on amount of money spent. Rankings here are somewhat subjective as it’s not always easy to tell exactly how much a TV show cost (or lost, plus you have to factor in inflation, etc. for older shows), but we think it’s a pretty good list.

7. Manimal

Manimal was pretty high concept for a show made in 1983. Although everything was kind of high concept back then admittedly. Anyway, Manimal was concerned with the character of Dr Jonathan Chase, a man who could turn into literally any animal. Naturally he used this ability to fight crime.

Unfortunately the tech in 1983 really wasn’t ready for such powers, and so Chase mostly just turned into either a hawk or black panther, and his transformation took place with the same backdrop each and every time, presumably for budgetary reasons. Sometimes he’d change into other animals, but only off screen. There’s a lot of bitching about CGI today, but it’s easy to forget just how cheesy anything at all fantastical looked back in the day. Sure there’s still goofy CGI on TV today (Lost submarine I’m looking at you), but at least we don’t have to sit through a guy turning into a panther every week against the same backdrop. Despite the budgetary precautions Manimal still clocked in as the most expensive show on television at the time, and only made it through eight episodes.

Here’s Chase famously turning into a panther:

Picture this happening every week and you generally get the idea.

6. Cop Rock

A police procedural musical would be one of the weirder ideas in television history, but if ABC hadn’t marketed the show and spent so heavily on the production I imagine Cop Rock would be looked at as just another weird flop, one of the probably hundreds in television history. Instead ABC seemed really, truly convinced that a musical cop show was going to work. It’s hard to imagine just how weird this show was today, but read this quote from an Entertainment Weekly article at the time:

But as the trial of a ponytailed drug lord reaches its climax and the jury foreman solemnly rises, ABC’s new police drama Cop Rock suddenly metamorphoses into something exceedingly strange.

”Hit it!” hollers the finger-snapping judge, and presto! a glowing piano emerges from the stenographer’s well, the jurors — now blue-robed church choir singers — rise and start to sway in unison, and then…they sing. The foreman sings. The judge sings. The spectators sing. The lawyers sing. Even the defendant does a little plea-bargaining in tune: ”I was abused as a child,” he croons to the crowd’s church-party chant of ”He’s guil-illl-tee! He’s guil- illl-tee! He did the crime/And now he’s got to pay!”


Just in case you’re having a hard time picturing this:

The show actually made it 11 episodes, which is still 11 more than I would have expected. I mean really, just for emphasis, this was a musical drama about our nation’s legal system, and it cost $2 million per episode in 1990 dollars.

5. The Fugitive Remake

Networks have shown a willingness to remake anything and everything, presumably assuming that if something was popular once it can be popular again. The problem with this is that most old tv was godawful, and if anyone remembers it fondly it’s more out of nostalgia than good taste. CBS ignored this, deciding to not only remake The Fugitive in 2000, but to spend quite a bit of money on the concept. I think anyone with common sense would have had a hard time seeing The Fugitive catching fire and becoming a big hit, but even more so when you realize CBS cast Tim Daly, a guy known mostly for the mediocre show Wings, as their lead. The pilot cost the network a whopping $6 million, but the show only made it through one season’s run of 22 episodes before getting the axe.

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4. Kings

Kings had a lot going for it. Ian McShane is briiliant, as anyone who has seen Deadwood would attest, and the show had a compelling concept. Critics liked the show, but after four episodes saw bad ratings NBC gave up on the property, sending it to the ghetto of Saturday night for one episode, and then pulling the show off the air entirely for a few months, finally burning off the last seven episodes over the summer. Again during Saturday nights. Complex shows often have slow builds, but NBC has shown repeatedly that they aren’t going to wait around for a show to find an audience, especially if it’s as expensive as Kings was to produce (reportedly running $4 million an episode).

There were also bizarre marketing decisions with Kings, such as a refusal to mention the show’s religious themes, despite the Christian community being a natural target for a show loosely centered around a modern day King David.

3. Jay Leno Show / Conan O’Brien

Gallons of ink have been spilled writing about the Jay Leno / Conan O’Brien drama, but the biggest takeaway from the entire thing is just how easy it was to foresee what was to come. For instance here’s Artie Lange basically predicting exactly what would happen to Conan once he took over the Tonight Show. Anyone who was paying attention knew Leno would be a disaster at 10, and it ended up costing NBC gobs of money to buy out Conan O’Brien as well as a great deal of credibility with the creative community from their misguided decision to basically give up on the 10:00 hour of programming. They also managed to piss off all of their affiliates at the same time. NBC at this point seems to be a step or two away from being a CW doppelganger.

2. Father of the Pride

For awhile there it seemed like CGI programming might be a trend, but Father of the Pride quickly killed that notion. An episode of Father of the Pride cost $1.6 million and took nine months to create. For a show about Siegfried and Roy and some talking animals. Is it any surprise that this show was on NBC? The network wasted tons of prime promotional spots during the 2004 Summer Olympics on the doomed from conception show, and then compounded the mistake by packing the first episodes full of cross promotional materials for other NBC and Dreamworks properties, making the show look more like advertising than content. It eventually got a little better, but it wasn’t enough and the show was canceled after just 14 episodes.

1. Supertrain

The next time you feel like complaining there’s nothing on TV think back to the late 70’s and what TV was like back then. Networks thought so lowly of their audience that they were willing to toss anything against the wall, assuming there’d probably be someone dumb enough to watch. Even if that something was basically “Love Boat” set on a train. A Super train. Meaning this was a standard (boring) drama, with a setting guaranteed to draw in 10 year old boys and autistic adults who would care mostly about the nuclear powered bullet train (that had a shopping mall and swimming pools on board, and could make the trip from NY to LA in 36 hours), and not at all about the boring standard tv fair being served up. The series was the most expensive ever made at the time, only ran for nine episodes, and nearly bankrupted NBC, proving that costly bad decision making is nothing new for the network.

Behold, the awful (awesome?) that was Supertrain:

  • don the roofer

    ok. please, let me preface the upcoming sentences by saying first, yes i know what im about to say is ludicrous. ridiculous by anyones standars with an inkling of common sense.

    but! ( here it comes!)

    that cop rock clip was fantastic!
    great singing, choreography, dialog, acting, lighing and set design. the amount of hard word and talent that must have went into that is truly seen in this clip.

    sure for a TV show every week, possible the worst idea of all time, but it wasnt talentless crap.

    you know, i think it may work today.
    tv is literally unwatchable (i do everything online now)

    however…with garbage like charmed, ghost whisperer, ugly betty, jay leno, glee( ya, i said it!), all reality shows, and that moronic sing off…..why not?!?!

    at leats this show could set an example for the turds today.


    ok, im going into my fort now!

  • The supertrain entry reminded me on why the TV was called the idiot box back then.

  • George

    Thank you for the Cop Rock clip. It may have been a flop, but it was crazy fun, and lead Steven Bochco to create NYPD Blue.

  • JaySin420

    Great article, I can’t wait till someone remakes Manimal.

  • Ruddiger

    Should have mentioned how Airwolf which was a great show, decided to move to Canada and replace canned footage with crappy CGI. And did I mention that no matter how drunk Jan-Michael Vincent was, he was still a way better actor than Barry Van Dyke.

  • Sam

    I’m glad Don had the guts to say it first, but I’ll agree here. Cop Rock was excellent. I remember after one of the episodes ended, I realized that for once a television show had managed to thoroughly entertain me for an hour at its highest possible dramatic level.

    The most memorable scene for me was when a female officer and her male partner were on a stakeout in a wealthy witness’ home, and they sang about what it must be like to live his extravagant lifestyle, but it became clear to them that as regular paid cops they would never be able to reach his level of wealth. It started out as funny and ended with a bittersweet twist. Cop Rock was often more situationally intriguing and emotionally satisfying than any other series I’ve seen.

    In addition, Peter Onorati’s central plotline was a clear precursor to that of The Shield.

    It was extremely disappointing to me that so many people pre-judged Cop Rock and rejected it without ever watching it. At least ABC was kind enough to let it stay on the air until the verdict in the central case was delivered, although the main character’s ethical journey was just beginning.

  • LB

    ABC has actually made a second police musical show. Eli Stone, which was on last season, combined time travel (or a coma, it wasn’t exactly clear), 1970’s police work, and George Michael songs with dance numbers. It was no surprise when it wasn’t renewed for a second season.

  • gnateye

    super train is pulled by the vehicle from damnation alley?

  • Pablo

    Cop Rock was great. Really great. It’s a handy whipping boy for bad TV since it sounds, frankly, insane, but the fact is that they did a marvelous job with the characterizations, and the songs were often beautiful and moving. One of my favorites was the song the girl sings to her infant while she’s waiting for to sell it for adoption. I think it’s one of the most moving scenes I can remember on TV.

    It’s funny that the trendy thing is to slam Cop Rock, which tried to create something honest, yet people are addicted to the totally unreal and empty-of-integrity Glee.

  • Carlo

    How could you possibly not include Defying Gravity? Not only was it super expensive but there were 3 or 4 networks involved in making it at the same time. Not only that, but it was actually good. Will, I don’t know who you are, but your an idiot.

  • Arcadia

    I loved “Father of the Pride”. They show it in reruns on Teletoon and the jokes were pretty funny. Too bad it didn’t have a longer run.

  • Mitch

    I liked Kings :(

  • Mitch

    Though i have to admit I think the title, Kings, and the intro to the show were pretty bad, and turned off a lot of people; they were better off going for a Lost-esque intro.

  • Tom

    OMG! ‘Supertrain’ is so very, very horrible… but I remember liking it. YES, I was an eleven year old boy at the time and loved ‘The Love Boat’ and ‘Fantasy Island’. It is astounding that NBC spent a boatload of money on that. I really wish they did go under. Probably the only thing that saved them was their Thursday night lineup in the early 80s.

    @gnateye – ‘Damnation Alley’, that is EXACTLY what I wsa thinking! How funny.

  • Matt

    Very amusing, right up until the moment you decided to refer to Supertrain as “a setting guaranteed to draw in 10 year old boys and autistic adults who would care mostly about the nuclear powered bullet train”.

    Let’s hope you never have to earn empathy the hard way, because if Autism enters your life, you’ll find out that there’s nothing remotely funny about it. It is, without exaggeration, hellish. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  • Michael

    I have to say that I *loved* COP ROCK, and am hoping that somebody brings it out on DVD. It really was a weird concept, but the cast and crew made it work. If the Gulf War hadn’t interfered (also killing an interesting little drama called WIOU), COP ROCK might have found its audience.

    LB is conflating ELI STONE (a lawyer show with music, some of it by George Michael), which made it for two seasons, and LIFE ON MARS, a time travel/coma? cop show set in the ’70s modeled on a better British series of the same name; no George Michael, though…

  • Say what you want about “Cop Rock”, the use of music – and the music itself – was a thousand times more original than “Viva Laughlin.”

  • Damasta

    Okay I’m gonna say it…. Manimal was my favorite program as a kid. It was awesome and I loved the effects every time I saw them. Someone should please remake it.

  • I’ve never seen most of these shows, but the `Fugitive’ remake was actually very decent.

    As for `Supertrain’, one episode featured Dick Van Dyke as a villain – if you can believe it.

  • Jim

    I have to admit that I have not seen ANY of the above T.V. shows with the exception of part of an episode of ‘Manimal'(think ‘Wonder Twins’ minus one) As for the rest, I think it amazing that the networks have lasted as long as this with this type of reek on the airwaves. I also admit that I had given-up on NBC (and ABC for the most part) at that time. It’s no wonder that cable exploded so quickly. At least they could enjoy a unique new reek (commercial-free at first)
    the early 1970’s to mid 1980’s were particularly ‘fragrant’

  • ajmilner

    David Letterman said of Cop Rock’s failure: “Too much cop — not enough rock.”

  • JYH3

    “Father of the Pride” was mainly canned because it was a show that had relatively adult themes and even though was put on at the gray hour of 9:00 (meaning some kids were allowed to stay up and watch it while some adults were just starting their evening tv watching), it had decidedly adult themes and was not really for children. It also was a bit lopsided: the scripts focused heavily on the animal side of things, whilst the most humorous part was in fact the characters of Siegfried and Roy (one of whom was played by David Herman, well known for his role of Michael Bolton from “Office Space”). The issue with them getting a spin off was that when it was being developed, the terrible accident with the REAL Siegfried and Roy and one of their White Tigers occurred, and making a spoof on their lives seemed in poor taste, thus it was dropped. Such a shame though, I’d have loved to watch and animated “Siegfried and Roy” every week…

  • SoundtrackWhore

    Ruddiger, you are absolutely right about Airwolf. Growing up in the time of The Equalizer, I enjoyed the great Cold War themes Airwolf and shows like it evoked every week. Hawke’s distrust of the Government; the fine line which Archangel usually crossed, and those beautiful images of Airwolf in the desert…ah, film! The music was awesome, and the show took on nearly folkloric proportions when Airwolf’s mystique as a living thing (think Mind of the Machine) came into play.

    Then, the move to Canada, the killing off of…well….everyone, the TERRIBLE acting, and those CGI effects (YIKES! How would anyone have thought those would work?), and you have yet another example of television thinking they know better than us.

    The day will come when someone who hatches a good idea gets to keep his idea and see it through to the end – think J. Michael Straczynski and Babylon 5. The shows above clearly demonstrate that we humans are terribly flawed and sometimes see the good in crap, even when that crap is stinky to everyone else but ourselves.