More failed products and people: The 9 biggest fizzles in 2009

Jay LenoIn the overwhelming thunder of 2009's Big Fizzle (the economy) many smaller yet important fizzles may have escaped public scrutiny. Here are nine that our writers found worthy of drawing to your attention. Feel free to add your candidates as comments.

The Jay Leno Show

Jay Leno, the former undisputed King of Late Night, still has a place in the TV kingdom, but not in prime time. His 10:00 p.m. "Jay Leno Show" -- which was hyped by NBC as the next great talk-show reinvention -- got shellacked in the ratings war of 2009. Early lukewarm reviews of the Monday-through-Friday comedy program hinted at a possible ratings rout: "Leno's funny, but ... he adheres to the center of the exact middle road, so it's wrong to expect a revolution here." "It's not a good sign when the Bud Light commercial is funnier than the comedy show it interrupts." Ouch.

The program showed ratings promise early on, but by Nov. 9, a scant two months after its mid-September premiere, it was cruising the swamps with a 1.2 national rating among 18-to-49-year-olds, a key demographic. That's 4.07 million viewers, compared with the nine million or so that tune in regularly to CBS' "CSI: Miami" in the same 10 p.m. time period.

And that's just Monday nights. Leno also dragged down Conan O'Brien, who'd fallen behind David Letterman in the late-night ratings derby. NBC affiliates, meanwhile, complained that they were losing their local audiences – KVBC Las Vegas lost nearly half its viewers at 10 p.m. compared with a year ago. It's no surprise, then, that the network is moving Leno back to the 11:35 p.m. slot, bumping Conan back to 12:05 a.m.. -- Diane Wedner

Google Wave

Google's deep pockets are funding a multitude of new products and Internet services, but few have come so highly hyped as Google Wave. The service, pitched as the next step in evolution from e-mail, was available to only a handful of selected users for much of 2009, so only late in the year did many of us get a chance to test drive the service.

Perhaps we've come to expect too much from Google, but there was no magic in the Wave. Jason Hiner of TechRepublic called it a "super-chatty IM client," an apt description for the service which merges together IM chat, video, e-mail, and group-editing. Tech guru Robert Scoble panned it, writing "it brings the worst of email and IM together: unproductivity."
-- Tom Barlow


Outrage over Paula Abul's replacement


By the time Paula Abdul finally made the official announcement that she was quitting American darling "American Idol" in August 2009, it was big news: but not nearly so big as the months, or even years, of speculation leading up to it. In April, when the eighth season wrapped up, Paula let slip that her contract was up for renewal; and her co-stars went on to sign with Fox, reportedly for as much as 20 times Paula's pay, while Paula's manager ran up against an unmovable negotiating stance (they wouldn't pay more than $4 million, compared to $40 million for Simon Cowell, says Gawker).

There had been quite a kerfuffle in 2005, when she was accused of having an affair with Season Two contestant Corey Clark; and again in 2007, when she broke her nose in an odd accident with her pet chihuahua, causing her to miss two episodes. Each time, her fans would insist that "American Idol" without Paula would fail miserably, and she suggested as much until her replacement, Ellen Degeneres, was named.

Such a likeable and unassailable woman was Ellen, Paula caved and Tweeted she thought the new judge would be "gr8" -- and after that, no more was said by anyone. Fans went back to looking forward to the ninth season, and the networks went back to dejectedly deciding upon shows to put in the dead spot opposite the perennial favorite. -- Sarah Gilbert

H1N1 crisis

The fear over the H1N1 flu bug was apparent by the automatic messages I'd hear every time I called my pediatrician's office, my pharmacy, even my family's obstetrician: each one prefaced all other statements of hours and which numbers to press to reach someone with the current status of the H1N1 vaccine there. And every time I called, that status was "we have none."

As swine flu went from specter of bizarre piggy fear (remember when we thought we could get it by eating pork? Yeah, I do too) to an official virus with a weird letter-number-letter-number name and a list of the dead numbering in the triple digits, we saw people wearing surgical masks in airplanes, doctor's offices, the city bus, sure that a plague was upon us. The WHO named it a global pandemic; President Barack Obama called it a national emergency.

Those among us who tend to worry more than the average were wondering, the 1918 flu pandemic vivid in our minds, how many millions would die. The answer? No millions. To date, 8,768 people worldwide have died from H1N1 flu; about 36,000 people in the U.S. are said to die each year from seasonal flu. H1N1: proof that worrying sometimes does help. -- Sarah Gilbert

Chicago's Olympic bid

Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics was so hyped it felt like a done deal. Property was acquired, accessories made and a vicious debate waged about the good and bad parts of hosting the games. Oprah and the Obamas flew to Stockholm, and in a city where the mayor is entrenched and pretty much always gets what he wants, the outcome seemed a foregone conclusion.

At the very least, Chicago expected to make a good showing. Instead, it was knocked out in the first round of voting, in mere minutes. The games were awarded to Brazil and all Chicago got was a vacant hospital campus where the Olympic Village was supposed to go. -- Laura Heller

Rick Warren

If Rick Warren's living the so-called "Purpose-Driven Life," then 2009 revealed him as an ambitious post-televangelist driven by two disparate and distasteful purposes: to discriminate against gays and raise huge, heaping gobs of cash. The only thing missing from his oh-so-anxious million-dollar plea at the end of 2009 was the God-as-extortionist line Oral Roberts once used. ("And if I don't get the money, God's going to call me home.")

No matter: Warren's tony Saddleback Church wasn't exactly hanging on for dear life the way urban ministries in crack house neighborhoods do. To put it in perspective: The $2.4 million Warren raised, if donated directly to the Christian relief group Compassion International, could keep 10,000 children alive through its Child Survival Program for an entire year. Don't you just feel warm all over now that Warren, in theory, now has the option of replacing the megachurch's modern sound system with an even newer one?

At least Warren did raise money for the very people he discriminated against when he backed California's Proposition 8, even if he didn't know it. The gay and lesbian group Driving Equality sponsored a "Rick-a-thon," taking pledges for each second Warren spoke at President Barack Obama's inauguration. Here's hoping that in 2010, Warren reads his gospels more carefully--and learns to love and serve those he discriminated against. Meanwhile, say a prayer that he spends all that newfound lucre with full, 100 percent transparency: To paraphrase a line from evangelical pop culture, that's what Jesus would do. -- Lou Carlozo


Dubai


Remember when Dubai was synonymous with chic, sheiks and sleek? What a difference a real estate bust makes. Sure, the tiny desert emirate grabbed headlines recently with the opening of the world's tallest building – the 160-story Burj Khalifa. But even that monument to hubris can't hide the fact that the Middle Eastern paradise that once attracted the uber-rich to its man-made islands shaped like palm trees and indoor ski runs drank too much of the credit Kool-Aid.

Within the span of a few years, Dubai – which sprouted seven-star hotels and sparkling office buildings – saw its international investment strategy collapse amid the global recession. It seems that gorging on credit wasn't good for Dubai either. Today the emirate is stuck with square miles of empty office space, and thousands of newly unemployed workers are heading back to their far-flung homes. It's racked up an $80-billion debt, $60 million of which is held by Dubai World, its investment arm.

Even with its oil-rich neighboring emirate, Abu Dhabi, expected to provide some financial rescue, the once glittering mecca of excess is looking a lot like Detroit. With more skyscrapers. -- Diane Wedner

The Gosselins


When Jon and Kate Gosselin opened their doors to America in 2005, soon after Kate gave birth to sextuplets, we were rooting for them. After all, the middle class Pennsylvania couple was willing to share the ups and downs of raising a set of twins in addition to the sextuplets, warts and all.

But the 21st century reality TV fairy tale, otherwise known as "Jon & Kate Plus 8," came to a halt when the two announced they were separating in June 2009. Then came the headlines, from 'Kate was a monster mom and wife' to 'Jon abandons the kids to tomcat around and live the high life in the Big Apple.' Needless to say, fans had had enough, and the Jon and Kate brand was damaged.

"I can't imagine any brand that would want to associate themselves with Jon," says Jared Shapiro, executive editor of Life & Style Weekly. "I think he oversaturated his image, and what little appeal there was in terms of fame got tarnished with insincerity." By the time Jon sued to end the filming of the show, which had been renamed "Kate Plus 8," everyone was ready to move on.

The couple's divorce was finalized in December. The lesson, says Shapiro, is "don't bet your future on fame. Fifteen minutes is 15 minutes. It's over and you're left with nothing." -- Lan Nguyen


Zhu Zhu pet

Through shrewd marketing or dumb luck or grace of the universe, the "must-have" toy of the year in 2009 was the humble Zhu Zhu pet, a mechanical hamster (there are four, actually) that would respond to petting with coos and trills and entertain small children with its unpredictable trajectory. Developed by toy industry veteran Russell Hornsby and his small, 7-year-old St.-Louis-based manufacturer Cepia, Zhu Zhu means "little pig" in Chinese. Still a prototype as late as last year, Zhu Zhus proved popular in small test markets, and apparently got good reviews with the Mommy Bloggers. After it was named as a "hot toy" in Toys R'Us annual Hot Toy list, these little piggies were off and running.

But we're calling it a fizzle anyway, and for several reasons. One, the company couldn't keep the little critters in stock. We think if you're going to talk the talk, you'd better have your factories working overtime to deliver the goods, especially if we're to believe that the frenzy wasn't manufactured by planned scarcity. (In its defense, retailers were being extra cautious this year, and when the toys proved so popular, it had to scramble to increase production.)

Second, although before Christmas Zhu Zhu pets were selling for up to $70 on eBay and Craigslist. Here it is only three weeks later and they're back down to earth, selling for about $12 on these sites, not too much more than the $8 price tag in the stores. That suggests that demand for these four annoying little hamsters were not driven by actual consumer desire after all. We think that the Pets will be in the same bargain bin as Furby and Tickle-me Elmo before the year is over. It was a quick scamper. But a Beanie Baby phenomenon this wasn't. -- Julie Tilsner

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