After Fox’s ‘Utopia,’ a history of TV’s biggest flops

Michael Hewitt
Orange County Register

Every fall brings failure to a few hopeful new shows, but rarely do they fall as hard as “Utopia.”

Fox committed a ton of money to producing the reality series — reportedly $50 million — and spent a lot of time promoting it this past summer, giving it a harder push than any of its other new fall programs.

America responded with indifference. The ratings have been abysmal, and already Fox has cut the show back to just Friday nights, where it will do little damage to the network’s overall numbers.

“Utopia” at least is likely to survive for an entire season. Few of TV’s notorious disasters even earned that much grace.

Here, in chronological order, are a few of the boob tube’s biggest blunders:

“You’re in the Picture” (1961)

Jackie Gleason and game shows were both hot properties in 1961, so NBC scored a coup when it arranged for the Great One to host this.

The concept for “You’re in the Picture” is hard to explain briefly, but it involved celebrities trying to identify a picture via yes or no questions while their heads were stuck through holes in said picture. Gleason spent the entire second episode apologizing for the first, saying: “Last week we did a show that laid the biggest bomb. It would make the H-bomb look like a 2-inch salute.”

The next week, “The Jackie Gleason Show,” a hastily arranged talk show, took the time slot and ran for two months.

“Turn On” (1969)

“Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” on NBC was the biggest thing on television in early 1969, and Bristol-Myers hired its creators to produce this similar venture. NBC and CBS both rejected it, but ABC took it on and gave it a big push, hoping to grab a large chunk of the “Laugh-In” audience.

“Turn On” premiered Feb. 5, 1969, and was received so poorly that Cleveland’s ABC affiliate pulled it 11 minutes in. Stations all around the country reported being flooded with complaints. ABC immediately put the show “on hiatus” and it never reappeared.

“The McLean Stevenson Show” (1976-77)

The most celebrated defection of the 1970s had nothing to do with the Soviet Union; it involved McLean Stevenson leaving “M*A*S*H” and CBS.

Stevenson had wanted his character, Lt. Col. Henry Blake, to have a bigger role. When that didn’t happen, he asked out of his contract. The dispute got plenty of attention, but no one seemed to care anymore six months later, when Stevenson’s first NBC series premiered. The family comedy flopped from the start, and only 10 episodes made it to air.

“Battlestar Galactica” (1978-79)

Glen A. Larson first conceived of this outer-space adventure in the late 1960s, but it got nowhere until “Star Wars” erupted in 1977. Suddenly, science fiction was cool, and ABC was willing not just to produce the show, but also to spend big money on it. The pilot reportedly cost $7 million, the equivalent of $25 million today.

The initial ratings were strong, but it didn’t take long for viewers to decide that the expensive special effects couldn’t cover for the silly scripts. After one season of 17 episodes, “Battlestar Galactica” was mothballed. An attempt to revive it as “Galactica 1980” failed even more quickly.

“Supertrain” (1979)

The most expensive series made to that date, “Supertrain” was meant to be a dramatic version of “The Love Boat,” with the passengers providing the main story lines of each episode. The titular train was an imaginary nuclear-powered bullet train that zipped from Los Angeles to New York in 36 hours.

The show didn’t get enough air time to make the trip; it was canceled after nine episodes.

“Casablanca” (1983)

This was the second attempt to make a series out of the beloved 1943 film: ABC tried and failed in 1955. NBC spent enough money on this version, which starred David Soul as Rick Blaine and Hector Elizondo as Captain Renault, that it won an Emmy for cinematography. That’s an amazing feat when you consider that the show was canceled after five episodes.

“The Fugitive” (2000)

You remember Tim Daly as Dr. Richard Kimble, right? That’s OK, neither does anyone else. CBS tried to revive the franchise, which had been very popular as a 1960s TV series and a 1993 movie, but the third time was not a charm. Despite heavy promotion from the network, “The Fugitive” fizzled and lasted just one season.

Chances are that you have heard of the show that came on after “The Fugitive” on Thursday nights, even though it didn’t get quite as big a promotional push: “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” (2006-07)

After “West Wing,” television audiences were dying to find out what Aaron Sorkin would come up with next. After seeing this, they were probably sorry they asked. “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” was as ungainly as its name, a drama about backstage life at a “Saturday Night Live”-type show that was dull and oddly humorless. The ratings started moderately well, but the viewers didn’t stick around. The show was canceled after one season.

“Cavemen” (2007)

Everyone loved, loved, loved those cavemen from the Geico commercials, so why not put them in a sitcom? Turns out, there were plenty of reasons why not. The transition from ad spokesmen to series stars earned the “Cavemen” plenty of media attention, but that did not lead to an audience for their show. Thirteen episodes were produced, but only six made it on the air.

“Terra Nova” (2011)

Fox pulled out all the stops for this effects-laden time-travel adventure, which claimed Steven Spielberg as an executive producer. The network spent $4 million an episode – about $1 million more than a typical drama’s budget – and delayed the premiere from spring to fall to get everything right. Despite the Spielberg connection, the money and a big push from Fox marketing, barely anyone watched. “Terra Nova” made it through a 13-episode first season, then disappeared into the mists of time.

“Utopia” (2014)

“Utopia,” sort of a cross between “Survivor” and “The Real World,” even got four hours of Fox’s weekly prime time, two hours each on Tuesdays and Fridays.

There’s no doubt that “Utopia” is the pratfall of the fall, but compared with some of television’s titanic tumbles, it looks more like a slightly ungraceful stumble. “Utopia” at least is likely to survive for an entire season. Few of TV’s notorious disasters even earned that much grace.