Don't know what The Battle of the Network Stars is? Then I weep for you. Long before MTV started having the casts of Road Rules and The Real World competing against one another in a series of athletic events, the Big 3 (NBC, ABC, CBS) did the exact same thing with their prime time stars.
Though the network stars last battled in 1988, (after 19 titanic conflicts, starting back in 1976) it never strayed too far from my consciousness. Ever since that last battle, I always hoped some network would be crazy enough to resurrect this glorious competition. Unfortunately, with the cable channel explosion diluting talent and television star salaries escalating past a point where a couple extra thousand dollars would be seen as a nice bonus and not simply an extravagant lunch, Battle of the Network Stars is destined to live on only in memories. Until now...
A few months ago, I stumbled across a rather sketchy online auction selling all 19 seasons of BotNS for the incredibly low price of $35. $35 to relive my childhood cooped up in front of my television? I quickly contacted the seller and prayed he actually had the DVDs, and wasn't some guy simply lying to get some cash for his next heroin kick.
I was in luck; the seller's vices became immaterial to me just a short week later as I was met with a package on my doorstep. My DVDs had arrived.
I immediately popped the 1976 inaugural season DVD into the player, nervous about whether it would meet the expectations my memory created, or simply snip one of the few last remaining strands connected to my childhood.
My anxiety, I'm happy to say was unwarranted. Battle of the Network Stars is everything I remembered, and oh so much more. Its blend of reality television, pure competition and cheesiness of unathletic people attempting to perform in athletic events is more than the perfect storm - its the perfect supernova of awesomeness.
Now, I'm not the only fan of Battle of the Network Stars; Bill Simmons, a.k.a. The Sports Guy on ESPN.com has written a few times about his love affair with the show. However, I am ready to become the de facto expert of Battle of the Network Stars on the web. And I'm ready to start now.
So, without further adieu...
The 1976 Battle of the Network Stars
Back in 1976 cable television didn't exist for the nuclear family. Sure, rich people may have been able to get off their couch, walk over to their tv and turn the dial to Home Box Office, before going off to swim in their indoor pool of money, but the rest of society got their entertainment from 3 stations: ABC, CBS, and NBC (sure there were also a couple UHF channels and PBS, but honestly, who wanted to see McNeil nor Lehrer struggle over a wall in the obstacle course?). So to make The Battle of the Network Stars a reality didn't take as much effort as one might think. It probably happened over a power lunch, or a coke orgy.
But enough about the sociological landscape. We're here for nostalgia and nerdom (actually, this probably ranks lower than any nerdom). Let's get into the meat of it.
We're immediately introduced to the three team captains with a Bondesque, pre-credit set up: CBS' Telly Savalas, is sitting by a pool, replete with gold chains and attitude; NBC's Bob Conrad, cigarette in hand, is careful careful not to get any ash on his yellow on yellow open buttoned shirt and shorts separates; and Gabe Kaplan is attempting some sort of weird tough guy accent, perhaps on the set of Sesame Street after hours. Cue the credits.
Howard Cosell will be playing the part of the emcee of the festivities. Say what you want about the man and his approach to sporting events, but here he is all business. With severity usually reserved for presidential inaugurations and assassination attempts, Cosell took announcing Battle of the Network Stars seriously. There is a famous story that Cosell approached announcing the Battle of the Network Stars the same way he approached announcing the Olympics, and if that doesn't speak to the professionalism of the man than I don't know what will.
Cosell starts off by introducing the teams:
Gabe Kaplan (Captain): Welcome Back Kotter
Darlene Carr: Streets of San Francisco
Lynda Carter: Wonder Woman
Farrah Fawcett Majors: Charlies Angels
Richard Dick Hatch: Streets of San Francisco
Bobby Heyges: Welcome Back Kotter
Bobby Heyges Afro: Welcome Back Kotter
Ron Howard: Happy Days
Hal Linden: Barney Miller
Penny Marshall: Laverne and Shirley
John Schuck: Holmes and YoYo
Telly Savalas (Captain): Kojak
Adrienne Barbeau: Maude
Gary Burghoff: MASH
Kevin Dobson: Kojak
Pat Harrington: One Day at a Time
Bill Macy (not the one youre thinking of): Maude
Lee Merriwether: Barnaby Jones
Mackenzie Phillips: One Day at a Time
Loretta Swit: MASH
Jimmy Walker: Good Times
Robert Conrad (Captain): Baa Baa Black Sheep
Melissa Sue Anderson: Little House on the Prairie
Karen Grassle: Little House on the Prairie
Tim Matheson: The Quest
Ben Murphy: The Gemini Man
Barbara Parkins: Captains and Kings
Joanna Petet: Captains and Kings
Kevin Tighe: Emergency
Bobby Troup: Emergency
Demond Wilson: Sanford and Son
Aside from a few names (and while you might not know the name John Schuck or the show Homes and Yo Yo, you would certainly recognize him from some other failed television show you caught an episode or two of), this is a who's who of television in the mid 70s. Some of these names will play an important part in the battle; some will never be seen again. I assume some played on the volleyball team (which received minimal coverage) others played tennis (which received an 11 second summary as a slow motion Loretta Swit celebrated a victory played in the background) while still others performed in the bike relay (which may or may not have simply been made up); still I think a few of the competitors may have been there simply to pick up a check.
A quick aside about slow motion since I brought it up. Never has it been used so successfully to titillate an audience during a family hour of television. Roger Goodman, the director of BotNS is either a visionary or currently serving time for stalking Lynda Carter. His slow-motion montages looked better than probably 75% of the porn being shot out there at the time.
Event #1: The Swimming Relay
Goodman, realizing he needed to grab the audience at the beginning, starts the competition with a swimming relay. While possibly not the most exciting event of the day, it does give us lovely lasses in tight bathing suits. Lynda Carter starts for ABC, Adrienne Barbeau starts for CBS, and I-dont-care-who starts for NBC. Goddamm you Goodman, you're not only an artist but you're a ratings genius.
Unfortunately, swimming is very unforgiving; you either know how to swim or you don't. Tim Matheson swims a strong anchor leg for NBC and puts them ahead early. But everyone wins when we are then treated a slow motion breakdown of Lynda Carter's start.
Hollywood's early gossip queen Rona Barrett makes her first appearance on the show right after the swimming event, setting up a canned segment about Lynda Carter's sky rocketing career. I'm not 100% sure why Barrett is involved with BotNS at all since Cosell did a fine job introducing and narrating the clip, but I'm not privy to Barrett's 1976 popularity. Heck, she may have had Oprah status. What I do know is that if she collected a paycheck for her work, then Goodman got ripped off. See for yourself:
Event #2: The Running Relay
Easily the most entertaining, controversial and craziest event of the competition. Four runners from each team race around a track and pass a baton to one another to complete the race. Bruce Jenner is introduced to give 15 seconds or so of mindless analysis which falls flatter than Aaron and his Vegas Next Food Network Star presentation, but I can't blame anyone as he is coming off his Olympic high. We get him out of the way and start the race.
Demond Wilson appears for the first time, getting ready to start the first leg of the race for NBC. In a bizarre exchange between him and Cosell, Demond suggests he'll race anything for the right price, to which Cosell invokes the name Jesse Owens. The whole conversation is charged with racial electricity, so I'll cautiously back away from it.
Everything seems to be going fine, with teams jockeying back and forth between first and third. Heyges afro seems to alter his gait; Ron Howard has an awkward, flailing approach to running, which makes it appear as though he's a wounded 'Nam vet, desperately trying to get back to the chopper. But all that's really to be expected. These people weren't on the track in high school; they were in the drama club. Suddenly, the race takes a controversial turn when NBC's Ben Murphyfrom the huge hit Gemini Man(?), moves off his line to accept the baton from Joanna Pettet early, and then turns the jets on to win the race, followed by ABC, with CBS bringing up the rear. Eagle-eyed Telly Savalas, captain of CBS notices the apparent gaffe and apparently lodges a complaint with the judges. The fact that there are judges and a formal process to lodge a complaint is a surprise to everyone, but most of all Robert Conrad.
Anyway, the judges confer, and rule that Murphy's move gave his team an unfair advantage and reward ABC with first place, NBC with second place, with the instigators, CBS, remaining in third.
Well, this does not please Bob Conrad in the least. But don't take my word for it. Watch the entire thing deconstruct right here:
A few quick thoughts about this race...
- Pettet gets caught in a lie and you can see it on her face. Nice try Pettet. I understand Conrad would probably murder you if you didn't at least attempt to cover it up.
- Like a conductor, Savalas is calling all the shots here. So uncaringly shrewd. I love it.
- To this day I don't know what Conrad's argument is. He's so angry, I don't think he knows what his argument is. Let's just say he's a man of action, and not a man of words.
- Carter, once again, is all over Kaplan.
- "Emotional reaction?" Telly Savalas you've done it again!
- Conrad actually threatens to pull his team. This is a celebrity competition! Don't think he wanted to win?
- After this Savalas performance, I seriously might start watching Kojak.
- After Kaplan accepts Conrad's challenge to a race-off, the rest of the ABC team seems hesitant to accept it. I honestly think none of them had any faith in Kaplan at that point. For shame. But once he won, they all would have taken a bullet for him.
- The race between Kaplan and Conrad is grossly unfair. Kaplan has the outside lane, yet both he and Conrad start at the same position on the curve of the track and stay within their lanes. So not only does Kaplan win the race, he runs a longer distance! (I've watched this video more times than the Warren Commission saw the Zapruder film.)
- If Heyges didn't grab the inside of Kaplan's leg in hoisting him after the race, Carter's arm would have been right there. Nice cockblock Heyges.
Event #3: Tennis
Against a slow motion montage of Loretta Swit celebrating a victory, Cosell casually mentions CBS won, followed by NBC and then ABC. And so ends the tennis event. Thank god we can then move on to...
Event #4: Golf
Since normal golf on television isn't that exciting, this is really painful - and the producers know it. Gary Burghoff shows why he didn't get much work after MASH by playing class clown to no laughs. Not even teh lovely Farrah Fawcett-Majors in a short skirt can save this event. We get a long set up from some gold announcer wearing a satellite on his head. Teams have to get closest to the pin on a hole created by a lawnmower and a bucket of sand on the lush lawns of Pepperdine. CBS wins. This is Goodman's only true misstep of the whole coverage, and I'm not even sure we can blame him.
Event #5: The Dunk Tank
Ah yes, the Dunk Tank. This event epitomizes what Battle of the Network Stars is all about by perfectly blending the athleticism and antics of these Hollywood starlets. Of course, they still need to iron out a few of the kinks, as it seems amazingly hard to actually dunk someone. Hitting the target does not necessarily guarantee anyone gets wet. Imagine that happening in modern television? People most likely would contact their cable provider demanding the "fat guy go in the water." Unfortunately, this event, much like swimming, can highlight someone's lack of athleticism. Throwing a ball is a skill that really needs to be learned at a young age and then practiced; if you miss your window as a young tyke then it's going to show when you're an adult. Never has this been so clear than in the difference between Kevin Dobson's approach and Gabe Kaplan's...Had Kevin Dobson not become an actor, he most likely would have pitched for the Dodgers, whereas Kaplan definitely found his calling in performing on the stage. After his 3 tosses fail to come within 6 feet of the target. CBS wins the dunk tank, followed by ABC and then CBS.
Event #6: Cycling relay
If tennis fans were upset with the brief coverage of that sport on the show, then cycling fans are going to, um, do another couple of laps in protest? I'm not sure what an angry cyclist would do really, but BotNS shortchanges the event and we're left with nothing but a verbal recap from Cosell. Though we do get to hear him describe Ben Murphy as "beautifully built."
Event #7: Obstacle Course
Probably the most famous of the events, or the at least one people are most familiar with. The course has 5 obstacles: a table-like structure to go underneath, tires to run through, monkeybars to swing on, a wall to climb, and a water pit to jump over. Fastest time wins. In the day's only real psychadelic moment, the cast of The Wizard of Oz shows us how to go through the course. I was particularly impressed with the Scarecrow's handling of the wall and water pit.
First heat: Penny Marshall vs. Mackenzie Phillips. Think Mackenzie has this one wrapped up, right? Guess again! This is the lean, mean svelte Penny Marshall and she demolishes the course. Only later in life, coasting on this obvious victory did she let herself go and become what she is today.
Second heat: Adrienne Barbeau vs. Karen Grassle. From the start, I figured Barbeau might have trouble due to some assets, (read: her boobs) and I was right. The lithe Grassle makes short work of Barbeau to advance.
Third heat: Dick Hatch vs. Gary Burghoff. Not a great matchup. Burghoff is just not tall enough to tackle the monkeybars with any sort of gusto and it takes him out of it early. I hate to criticize Telly here, but is Burghoff the wisest choice for this event? Heck, is he the wisest choice for the entire show? Are you telling me the guy who plays Father Mulcahey had more important things to do than head up to Pepperdine and suit up in the name of network pride? Hatch breaks the tape easily in this heat.
Fourth heat: Kevin Dobson vs. Ben Murphy. Probably the two best athletes competing today. This is huge. We get a quick look into what makes Kevin Dobson tick (apparently he's insane. And not the fun kind. The borderline, I-should-be-under-constant-surveillance kind) with a profile before the race, and then Murphy makes short work of him. Very anticlimactic.
Finals: Marshall vs. Grassle. I thought it would be tighter, but no, Penny schools the blond lass and shows everyone what could have been had she kept a stairmaster in her Hollywood mansion during the 80s.
Finals: Hatch vs. Murphy. Again, a potential epic battle that fizzles with Hatch winning a laugher. ABC takes the victory. On to the next event and - wait! A Dr. Joyce Brothers sighting! Cosell ambles over to the good doctor sitting in the stands and proceeds to get into a sociological conversation about celebrities competing and why people enjoy watching them compete. Did Dr. Joyce Brothers know about some huge network exec orgy fest in the 70s that no one else knew about? It's these little asides that no one remembers that makes us all remember how ugly early television could be.
Event #8: Volleyball
I've seen a lot of bad volleyball in my day, but nothing comes close to this. But before we head to the action let's give Robert Stack a moment to wax poetically about the sport of Olympic shooting (I'm sorry, but I'm past the point of even trying to explain what these little vignettes of sublime awsomeness have to do with the actual competition. But there's no way I'm fast forwarding through anything Robert Stack does).
Here's the breakdown: ABC is playing CBS in volleyball. If ABC wins, they advance to the Tug o' War against CBS. If CBS wins, then they go into the Tug o' War against NBC. So there's a lot on the line here.
Really, no one is ever going to use this game as a classic example of how the sport is played.
After a cagey move by Savalas to win a point, we dissolve to his profile of him cutting a scene of Kojak with Rosie Greer. He then comes on camera and spends the next 5 minutes talking about horseracing and how he owns a horse that is going to revolutionize the sport. I couldn't make this up if I tried.
Back to the game, where Kaplan is taking full advantage of the ref's loose interpretation of the carry rule. If I were CBS I might lodge a protest that Kaplan's mustache gives ABC an unfair advantage. Seriously, when talking about famous mustaches, where does Kaplan rank? I'd say below Selleck, but above Gerald McRainey.
The game ends with Kaplan putting ABC on his back and "carrying" them to victory, pun fully intended. The sport of volleyball has just been set back fifteen years. The match over, Cosell ambles over to Savalas for comment, Telly suggests he threw the match so they could take on the smaller, lighter ABC team in the Tug o' War. Why didn't anyone tell me how awesome Telly Savalas was? I mean more so than I already knew?
Grand Finale: Tug o' War
The venue changes to some gorgeous Malibu beach, but neither team is here for the sights - they want to win. The NBC team is on the sideline, probably still bemoaning the judges' decision to penalize them in the running relay. In fact, Conrad openly states he's rooting for CBS , barely hiding his disdain for ABC, and Kaplan in particular. I love the fact that he still believes Kaplan filed the protest against him. Telly Savalas you magnificent bastard, you played everyone like a fiddle!
CBS has Kevin Dobson who may or may not have killed a hobo before this event. He looks serious. I don't see how ABC can win...
Yet they do, despite Conrad screaming out advice to team CBS. Underdogs the whole way through, Kaplan leads this bunch of ragamuffins (along with the gorgeous Lynda Carter) all the way to victory. And to top it all off, he presents a bottle of champagne to Savalas. Would Conrad have done that?
And with that, The Battle of the Network Stars '76 is over. Yes, there are plenty of reasons why it could never work in 2008, but there are also plenty of reasons why it should at least be attempted. Sure, we can pretend those Real World/Road Rules Gauntlet shows fill the celebrity competition void, but why try to kid ourselves? These shows have none of the charm and charisma of television celebrities and instead trade on the ugliness of trying to be a star. Sure, they have entertainment value, but none of the wit and absurdity Battle of the Network Stars have given us. There have been plenty of attempts to capture it, but no one has succeeded. But I'll always be on the lookout for it, and the second I see it, you'll know.