Battle of the Network Stars

Before I begin, I just want to say a quick thank you to everyone who has decided to follow me on this crazy ride through the past. And anyone who hasn’t jumped on board yet…. what are you waiting for? After you read today’s entry, join the mailing list and you can find out exactly when new posts hit the airwaves.

With that said, let’s get on with the show!

Welcome back to another fun-filled adventure with Ponch’s Disco-Rama! Sorry I couldn’t put out my normal babble-filled posts last week, but The Wonderful World of Disney was calling. We managed to squeeze in the break at the right time – they announced the closing of all parks while we were there and people were not happy.

Well, the guests weren’t at least. Some of the employees were stoked. I heard two young employees chatting and one told her friend, “I don’t have to commute to school anymore and now two weeks off from here? By April, I’m gonna be so well-rested!!”

When we got home Saturday night, I ran down to the local Wal-Mart to grab some essentials. It’s surprising how isolated you can get during a vacation like that. I was catching up on news and heard about the toilet paper trauma from coast to coast, but I was not prepared for what faced me in the aisles of Wally World.

Fighting, grabbing items from other’s carts, grabbing boxes from employees before they’ve even made it onto the sales floor. It was like an indoor version of The Hunger Games. But it did get me thinking about infamous pop culture battles, and one immediately came to mind:

THE BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS!

It’s Malibu. Was Johnny Fever the only one to think of sunglasses?

Battle of the Network Stars (BOTNS) was an ABC show which premiered in 1976. It was actually a spin-off, kind of, from their show called Superstars. The concept for Superstars was simple. Take a bunch of well-known athletes and have them compete in sports for which they are not well known.

For example, the premiere episode in 1973 featured Cincinnati Reds’ catcher Johnny Bench, Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas & world champion boxer Joe Frazier alongside a Pro Bowling Hall of Famer and Olympic skiers and pole vaulters. They competed in a range of events including table tennis, swimming, and bike racing.

The pole vaulter won that first show, but the most memorable performance may have come from “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier during the 50m swim. It was obvious from the start that he wasn’t comfortable in the water, as he sort of flopped from the starting block. He attempted a version of freestyle initially, but by the halfway point, he had reverted to some semblance of the doggy paddle. He finished in more than twice the time of the other three swimmers.

When asked after the event about his performance, he confessed that he didn’t even know how to swim. So why compete? “How was I to know unless I tried it?” Spoken like a true champion.

Ratings and interest for the show were pretty strong, so the idea came up to do a similar competition featuring celebrities. And from that, came BOTNS.

You’d be hard pressed to find a situation today where stars from two competing networks would agree to help the third network achieve ratings gold, but that wasn’t much of an issue a few decades ago. In the 70’s, cross-promotion was much more common. Variety shows, telethons and game shows often featured actors from all three networks.

All three. Yes, these were the glory days – pre-cable – when it was just ABC, NBC & CBS. Initially, folks were a bit skeptical about the contest. Obviously, the producers of the shows were concerned about their stars getting injured. And the stars weren’t that keen on the idea at first either. Many of them have since said they received pressure from their agents and PR teams to sign up.

Then why would they agree to it? Some loved the idea of competing. Some may have longed to re-live their glory days of old. Some have confessed that they looked forward to a fun weekend of partying. (The contest was held twice a year at Pepperdine University, located in sunny Malibu, California.)

However, one reason on which they all agreed was the cash prize. Twenty thousand dollars for each player on the winning team. Heck, even the third place team each took home five grand. Remember, this was long before television stars were bringing in million dollar salaries.

If you won, the money was more than what some of us were getting for the series we were doing.

Jamie Farr – M*A*S*H

As comparison, the Pittsburgh Steelers won that year’s Super Bowl and the players each took home only fifteen grand. Sure, it was a fun time, but there was really something at stake. The initial competition was a “just for fun” kind of thing, but in later years, teams would get together for weeks prior to the taping for conditioning drills and workouts.

After all, beneath all the celebrity and fun, this was being billed as a sporting event. What better way to drive that point home than to enlist the top talent in sports broadcasting? Let’s bring in Howard Cosell. (Or as Mad Magazine sometimes referred to him – Howard Co-Smell….)

Cosell brought an air of authenticity to the games. Plus, he was just fun to have around. He loved being surrounded by the stars (and the beautiful women didn’t hurt). He took it seriously, but still kept his tongue firmly in his cheek.

I was and to this day remain a huge Cosell fan, and having the opportunity to interact with Cosell was a great joy and one of my fondest memories. It’s like being heckled by Don Rickles, you know? Having Cosell insult you or even just mention your name was the Holy Grail for me.

LeVar Burton – Roots

Cosell brought his usual intelligent sarcasm to the festivities which made them even more enjoyable. For example, when interviewing Telly Savalas about why he wasn’t competing in a kayak race, Savalas answered with “We’re saving the best for last, Howard.” Cosell chuckled before responding, “Okay Telly, we’ll be sure to see your futility a bit later on.

During the live events, Cosell made mental notes about the contests, but did not do any live commentary. He saved that for post production. After the games, he would go into a booth and record the entire play by play for the entire show, often in one sitting.

Scott Baio, who competed for many years on Team ABC, but, while injured, once acted as Cosell’s “co-host”. He was expected to handle commentary alongside Cosell, but once inside the production booth, he realized he was in way over his head:

It’s pitch black, we’ve both got a microphone and a headset. We’ve got a television sitting in front of us, and he goes, “Okay, let’s go!” And we started from the beginning, and I’m telling you, for an hour and 40 minutes, he did not stop. And it was all off the cuff. All of it. And he’d throw it to me, “Baio, what do you think about that?” “Great, Howard!” “Okay!” [Laughs.] It was like a walk in the park to him. To watch him do that was one of the most truly awesome things I’ve ever done. He just knew everybody’s name, he knew the events, he knew the scores… He knew everything.

Scott Baio – Happy Days

Cosell was a great point man, but he needed additional support. Group broadcasting worked for Monday Night Football, so why wouldn’t it work here? The decision was made to bring in two of the top athletes in the world.

INSERT JOKES HERE

And they even got compete on occasion. Cue the Karate Kid music.

Cancel the Karate Kid music. They actually look a bit clumsy. Bring in Benny Hill’s “Yakkity Sax” instead.

As magnetic as they were, though, this Tremendous Trio was not the main reason people tuned in. This was called the Battle of the Network STARS and that’s what was delivered. Unlike many current shows that advertise “star-power” and bring on a handful of B- & C-level actors, this show delivered the goods. The competitors were truly some of the top talent on the air. Just look at the lineup for the very first show:

Team CBS:

Team NBC:

Team ABC:

And that was just the first year! Take a look at those teams and choose who you think would win. I’ll reveal the answer further down.

Grizzly Adams himself, Dan Hagarty

Once the word got out, the excitement grew and even bigger stars became interested. Before long, we saw everyone from Tom Selleck and Mark Harmon to The Captain & Tennille. Age didn’t matter. Athletic ability was insignificant. We saw men in their forties going head to head with kids in their teens.

None of us were athletes. They were just starting to sprout gyms on each corner, so nobody stayed in shape, we didn’t have trainers… and I never was a good athlete to begin with! On top of that, I was much older than most of the other people. What year was that? 1976? I was in my 40’s already. They were in their 20’s! I said, “What am I going to do? I can’t run fast, I can’t lift… What am I going to do?” But I said, “I’ll do it.

Hal Linden – Barney Miller

The show was a huge success and new ones were broadcast every spring and fall (usually during the TV ratings sweeps periods) until May of 1985.

Kurt Russell

So we’ve got this phenomenal cast of celebrities, and a solid broadcast team in place. Now, what should we have them do?

The events on BOTNS are nearly as memorable as the stars. The “athletes” competed in swimming, kayaking, volleyball, golf, tennis, cycling, 3-on-3 football, the dunk tank, running, bowling (on specially designed outdoor lanes) and, everyone’s favorite – the obstacle course.

Once these events were completed, the lowest scoring team was eliminated. The final two teams then went head to head in the Tug-of-War.

Willie Aames

They even had a competitive version of Simon Says for a little while, though that wasn’t a regular feature. This sounds ridiculous until you consider there is now a World-wide Tag league, so I guess anything is possible.

Those events on the water became some of the most popular… for obvious reasons.

The beefcake America craved.

Just kidding.

Gabe Kaplan & Robin Williams strut their stuff

This is what was driving the ratings:

Heather Locklear or Heather Thomas? I always mixed them up
Chachi with one of the Heathers
Magnum

Even the stars were getting distracted:

Right when Lynda Carter stepped up and onto the platform, she pulled her suit out—she was wearing a one-piece—and let it slap back, and… that was the best moment of the whole thing for me. It was, like, “Okay, she won!” [Laughs.] It was pretty spectacular.

Tim Matheson – The Quest

For all of the laughter and fun, some of the celebrities took things very seriously. One of the biggest competitors was Robert Conrad. Known throughout his career as a tough guy – remember his battery commercials? -he did not like to lose.

During the relay race in the premiere special, controversy struck and Conrad was at the center of it. Team NBC won the relay, but then Coach Telly Savalas of CBS wanted to lodge a complaint. He felt that one of the runners for NBC started far earlier than he should have and should, therefore, be disqualified.

Note the cigarette in his mouth… while the event is going on!

Let’s go to the video tape!

You can see Ben Murphy (in yellow) starting a bit behind the white line where the runners should be. And that’s when all hell broke loose.

As the rules committee decided what to do, The Athlete Formerly Known As Bruce Jenner (TM) spoke to the captains. The result is a conversation that would never make it on the air today:

Robert Conrad: If he took the baton early, he just ran a little further. That’s all. The advantage of taking the baton…is to be running with the runner. So if they’re protesting the fact that we really outran them, that’s their problem.

Telly Savalas: Can I give you another comparison? (To Jenner) It’s like my putting my uniform on you. That’s how vulgarly and that’s how flagrant they were in breaking the rules. (I would swear he said they were “fragrant” in breaking the rules, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here.)

Conrad: He is Greek and the Greek are famous athletes. That’s how this all started. (Points to Kaplan.) He’s Jewish. He wants to arbitrate. I’m German. I want to kill both of them!

Then, out of nowhere, Pat Harrington Jr. (Schneider from One Day at a Time) jumped in and said, “And I’m Irish and I’m lookin’ for another Mick to hit!”

Savalas: I’m from New York and I want the bread, baby!

Ah…. the good old days……

Anyway, the rules committee decided to hit NBC with a 2 second penalty, so ABC ended up winning the race. That wasn’t good enough for Conrad, who started whining to everyone who would listen. He kept making excuses as numerous members of all teams came over to talk some sense into him. He was heated. That German temper was runnin’ high.

Finally, he proposed a solution. They wouldn’t allow him to re-run the entire race, but they agreed to a one-on-one between NBC and ABC. As captain, Gabe Kaplan was going to run against Conrad. When it was suggested, you could almost see a twinkle in Mr. Kotter’s eyes.

They lined up and Conrad got a quick start from the block. It didn’t last long, however as Kaplan blew past and left him in the dust.

Conrad had to eat crow, sheepishly admitting, that NBC still technically won the race, but the better captain won their head-to-head.

And the wins kept coming for ABC as they went on to win the whole shebang.

When the series finally ended in 1985, eighteen contests had been completed, with each network holding six wins. It was brought back as a one time event in December of 1988, for a tie-breaker of sorts.

William Shatner, a Heather, Howard Cosell, & Stephen Collins

It should surprise nobody that “home team” ABC, captained by John Davidson, went home with the final victory. Smells fishy to me.

By that time, cable networks were growing rapidly and we were no longer just a three network society. Old stars were appearing on channels all across the TV spectrum and trying to round them up for more events like this just wasn’t feasible.

A few reboots were attempted including Battle of the Network Reality Stars in 2005. They also did an official reboot in 2015, featuring many alum from the glory days. However, it just didn’t have the same charm. (Plus, they were all thirty years older.

The show was absolutely a product of its time and any other versions will suffer by comparison.

Well, almost every version. Laff-a-Lympics will always be awesome.

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