Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Who the hell is Rolf Benirschke?: 8 TV host transitions that ended badly

Conan O'Brien on The Tonight Show

This week, Trevor Noah debuted as host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. He faces the unenviable task of replacing Jon Stewart, a host who practically defined the show’s influential approach to political comedy. If he’s smart, Noah will focus on making the show his own and won’t try to become Stewart 2.0. But in the back of his mind, he might be daunted by cautionary tales from the annals of TV hosting—impossible situations where replacement hosts were doomed to fail and promptly did so.

1. Conan O’Brien, The Tonight Show

Most of the hosts on this list failed on their own merits, but Conan O’Brien had lots of help. It’s still open to debate whether the absurdism that made O’Brien a beloved figure on Late Night could have translated to a major network’s 11:35 time slot. But America never really got a chance to find out. After building its new host a multi-million-dollar studio and hyping up his ascension to the late night throne, NBC cut O’Brien off at the knees, canceling or rescheduling all of the network’s 10 p.m. (Eastern) weeknight shows and turning those hours over to O’Brien’s predecessor, Jay Leno.


What resulted was a legendary debacle, as Leno siphoned his loyal viewers away from O’Brien, and both shows suffered (as did the network, which found that a nearly uninterrupted four-hour block of talk shows wasn’t as appealing to viewers as ER had been). Only seven months into O’Brien’s tenure, NBC somehow made the situation worse by floating a novel idea: Move Leno’s new show into The Tonight Show’s time slot and push Tonight, Late Night, and Later back half an hour. O’Brien refused to play along, insisting he didn’t want to see one of TV’s most venerable institutions diminished further. NBC ended up buying out O’Brien, putting Leno back behind his old desk, and everything was as it was before. Except that the network was out $45 million, had no 10 p.m. shows, was stuck in last place, turned much of America against Leno, spawned other late-night competitors (as O’Brien rebounded with Conan on TBS), and cemented its reputation for network incompetence. [Mike Vago]

2-3. Deborah Norville and Ann Curry, Today

NBC’s penchant for mismanaging a high-profile talent transition isn’t restricted to the late-night lineup. In the past 30 years, two women have fallen victim to the network’s inability to replace popular hosts with dignity, the first being Deborah Norville. Called up from NBC’s (now-defunct) early morning show, NBC News At Sunrise, Norville was made the Today news anchor in 1989—and, more notably, she was given a seat on the couch next to longtime cohosts Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel. Pauley felt she was being edged out and left Today at the end of the year to make way for Norville. The subsequent ratings decline prompted a flurry of anonymously sourced media leaks that cruelly cast Norville as a usurping ice queen. Fourteen months after ascending to the cohost slot, Norville left on maternity leave, with the NBC News president giving the press this lukewarm assurance: “I suspect she will be welcomed back.” She never returned, but she bounced back elsewhere: Norville has hosted the syndicated newsmagazine Inside Edition for 20 years.

Ann Curry’s situation in 2011-12 was similar to Norville’s in 1990-91: Previously a Today news anchor, Curry was tapped to replace the popular Meredith Vieira, and a dip in ratings ensued. The difference this time was that the most prominent resistance to Curry came primarily from within the show rather than from the viewers. Curry could never establish a strong rapport with fellow host Matt Lauer, whose lack of enthusiasm for her promotion came across on screen. Amid a familiar onslaught of salacious news reports about on-set discord, Curry signed off of Today after a year as cohost with a tearful farewell to the nation. “They’re giving me some fancy new titles,” she said with unmistakable disdain for NBC’s vain efforts to allow her some grace as she was shoved out the door. [John Teti]

4. Rosie O’Donnell, The View

Apparently, Meredith Vieira is a tough act to follow. Rosie O’Donnell became the hot-button figure at the center of a hosting mess when she succeeded Vieira as moderator of The View and—to the apparent shock of ABC executives—proceeded to be Rosie O’Donnell. With controversial statements like “Radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam” and ugly lapses like her “Ching-chong! Ching-chong!” imitation of Chinese news reporters, O’Donnell certainly helped maintain The View’s high profile, but mainly because the show was seen as a train wreck. O’Donnell’s last day came only eight months after her debut, after Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s insipid right-wing commentary angered O’Donnell and led to a heated argument between the two cohosts. Feeling that the show’s producers were stoking the flames of anger around her rather than defending her, O’Donnell asked to be let out of her contract, and ABC obliged. O’Donnell would later return to The View in 2014, only to bow out less than a year later, citing stresses in her personal life. [John Teti]


5. Ross Shafer, The Late Show

In 1986, Joan Rivers reacted to a leaked NBC memo that she was not in consideration as Johnny Carson’s replacement on The Tonight Show by taking her talk-show host services to the upstarts at Fox. While audiences found The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers intriguing enough to give it decent viewing numbers at first, the ratings soon drifted downward, and the increasingly poor performance—combined with Rivers’ backstage battles with Fox executives—led to her firing just over seven months later. Fox made several attempts to salvage The Late Show, first trying a retooled version with Howard Stern that never made it to air, then bringing in Arsenio Hall, whose ratings were strong enough to keep the show alive, even if the network’s prior commitments limited his tenure to 13 weeks. After the failure of a replacement show (The Wilton North Report), a few other comedians took a shot at the Late Show gig, and Fox finally assigned comic Ross Shafer to captain the sinking ship. While Shafer failed to keep it afloat, he did manage to turn in a few memorable episodes during his brief tenure, most notably reunions of the casts of Gilligan’s Island and Batman. [Will Harris]


6. David Hirsch, American Bandstand

Dick Clark and American Bandstand are so inextricably intertwined, it’s often forgotten that Clark was neither the first host of the series—that honor belongs to Bob Horn—nor its last. After 31 years in the ABC lineup, the broadcast network said farewell to the venerable music series in 1987, at which point it went into syndication for just under a year. Following a 10-month hiatus, Bandstand then bopped over to the USA Network in 1989, having been retooled into an outside-dance-party situation. As if that wasn’t disconcerting enough, Clark decided to pass the torch as host of the show, with David Hirsch taking over. After six months of performances by such late-’80s legends as The Graces, Red Flag, Sa-Fire, and Waterfront, USA pulled the plug on American Bandstand, making Hirsch a pop-culture footnote. [Will Harris]


7. Dennis Miller, Monday Night Football

Dennis Miller was a very successful replacement host… for Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, where he set a high-water mark after a tumultuous parade of anchors that included unmemorable turns by Charles Rocket and Brian Doyle-Murray. But he was still a left-field choice to succeed ex-quarterback Boomer Esiason as a color commentator on Monday Night Football (alongside play-by-play announcer Al Michaels) in the waning years of MNF’s 35-year run on ABC. While ABC tried to complement Miller with fellow analyst San Diego Chargers legend Dan Fouts, the network was banking on viewers responding to Miller as an outsider’s voice, an everyman who had more of a fan’s perspective on the game than the likes of Joe Theismann or Frank Gifford. The problem was, your typical everyman doesn’t compare a team’s running game to the Battle Of Verdun or claim a quarterback “had more hands in his face than an OB-GYN delivering Vishnu’s triplets.” After a season of baffling references that sailed over the average football fan’s head like Gerd Wessig during a Jimmy Carter boycott, Miller was replaced by John Madden, who combined unimpeachable football credentials with the preternatural ability to keep it simple. [Mike Vago]


8. Rolf Benirschke, Wheel Of Fortune


Merv Griffin liked to cast relative unknowns to host his game shows. Art Fleming became the original Jeopardy! emcee after Griffin glimpsed him in an airline commercial. Chuck Woolery was a third-tier singer and kiddie show actor before he took the Wheel Of Fortune hosting gig, and Woolery’s successor, Pat Sajak, was a local TV weatherman. So in 1989, when Sajak was preparing to leave the network daytime version of Wheel (not the flagship syndicated series) to host his own late-night talk show, Griffin decided he would find another diamond in the rough. His bizarre choice to replace Sajak was Rolf Benirschke, a former San Diego Chargers kicker with no television experience to speak of. A clearly nervous Benirschke fought to contain flop sweat as he opened his first show with this introduction: “I know this is a shock to a lot of you [gulp] expecting Pat Sajak, but Pat’s off doing other things, and—and I’m trying to replace him.” The painful awkwardness continued, as Benirschke never quite got comfortable in the job, and six months later his Wheel was canceled by NBC. Poor Rolf still lasted longer than Sajak’s talk show, though. [John Teti]

Share This Story

Get our newsletter