Thursday, October 2, 2008

Battle of the Network Stars - November 1978


I wonder if Roone Arledge has a time machine.

After my last rant about Suzanne Somers not being up to snuff for color commentary for the May 1978 battle, changes were made. Now, due to the paradoxes time travel introduce, it's impossible for me to know whether or not Arledge, the producer of the Battle of the Network Stars, (or a descendant wanting to buff the resume of the great producer, since Arledge died in 2002) invented time travel after reading my last blog post and told him to find someone better, or if he simply realized Somers wasn't good. Either way, we have a new color commentator for Battle of the Network Stars V.

Unfortunately, it is not the triumphant return of Telly Savalas.

It is Cosell's Monday Night Football partner, Frank Gifford, his head still on a swivel keeping an eye out for Bednarik coming 'round to level him.

It's your call on whether you think this move is an upgrade over Somers.

I'll say this, it adds another level of professionalism on an event that walks the line between seriousness and absurdity. I mean think about it (and I have), what current celebrities would do this today? What production companies would allow it? What insurance companies would? In this battle alone I counted 4 injuries to celebrities. Some even looked real. I doubt many agents, managers, assistants, lawyers or publicists would allow their clients to participate.

And that's a shame. Because Battle of the Network Stars November 1978 upped the ante a bit. Sure it starts off a little slow, but by the end you can tell these teams want to win...

Let's meet those teams...

ABC

Gabe Kaplan (captain)
Debby Boone
Billy Crystal
Joyce DeWitt
Richard Hatch
Maren Jensen
Robert Urich

CBS

McLean Stevenson (captain)
Valerie Bertinelli
LeVar Burton
Lou Ferigno
Pat Klous
David Letterman
Tim Reid
Charlene Titlon

NBC

Robert Conrad (captain) (he's back!)
Joseph Bottoms
William Devane
Pamela Hensley
Brianne Leary
Wendy Rastattar
William Shatner
Caskey Swaim

It's easy to handicap the event looking at these rosters. CBS, basking in their battle IV victory, seem content to mail it in; McLean Stevenson as captain is an insult to the other teams. ABC keeps Kaplan and immediately has to be considered a favorite, while NBC, obviously embarrassed after their last performance, does what it takes to get Conrad back to lead their team. He's on the team because he starred in a miniseries called, "Centennial," and if that's not bending the rules to get his experience on the team then I don't know what is. I mean look at the picture they used to hype him up. Aside from looking as though he's about to attempt to regain an oil rig from Anthony Perkins (I dare anyone to get that reference), this man is balls to the wall ready to win this competition.

Speaking of stacking the deck, CBS does tries the same trick with the addition of LeVar Burton to their roster for starring in One in a Million: The Ron LeFore Story. And that's not even a mini-series like Centennial. I get the feeling that NBC and CBS are playing pretty loose with the eligibility rules.

Event #1: Swimming

Swimming, the one true event that really highlights a player's strength or weakness doesn't disappoint. At first, I pegged Joe Bottoms for the "i'm-taking-this-more-seriously-than-any-acting-gig-I've-ever-done" (aka The Kevin Dobson Award) but then he showed off his ass when teh announced him for the swimming event, and that's not anything Dobson would approve.

Of course, Bottoms does appear to have grown up at least near water as he knifes through the water giving NBC an insurmountable lead, and a new swimming record. Devane helped as well, though he doesn't have the breathing down pat; had he breathed to the side NBC might have been able to lap the other two.

After the race we're also treated to a very lame and unfunny skit involving Kaplan and Robin Williams. As Williams is on the show because of his portrayal of Mork (from Ork of course) Cosell and Gifford repeatedly (ad nauseum actually) set him up to riff in "Ork" language. Kaplan "translates." It's hard to watch.

After swimming:

NBC - 100
ABC - 75
CBS - 50

Event #2: Rowing

ABC has a stranglehold on this event, having never lost (unless they did during the lost '77 battle). This race is no exception. ABC cruises to victory as Kaplan doesn't even get wet rowing the anchor leg of the race. I did enjoy William Shatner's polo shirt and popped collar look, treating the race as a business casual Friday at the office. And Tim Reid looked very bad in his boat, reinforcing the age old stereotype (hey - he brought it up, not me!).

After ABC trounced the other two teams, Gifford looks to get a reaction from Conrad, who, "pretends" he isn't too upset with his team's performance, and suggests this race is "sophisticated." I spend a good 15 minutes trying to figure out how, and come up empty.

Event #3: Dunk Tank

The dunk tank is back...with some tweaks that really make no sense. Instead of people choosing who they want to go in the tank, it's now up to the captains to sit on the perch. That's all well and good, but...have you seen these captains. I don't want to be presumptuous, but aside from Conrad's Jack LaLane physique, these guys aren't giving the female viewers much to fantasize about (aside from the Kaplan tickler he's been cultivating on his top lip for quite some time now). Luckily, Arledge realizes the captains' lack of sex appeal and gives us Pat Klous to be dunked to go over the arcane dunk tank rules. Unrelated, those traditional green suits of BotNS show off the areola really well.

We're introduced to the commissioner of the festivities, and it's none other than Sparky Anderson, famed manager of the Cincinatti Reds. I'll never understand how a commissioner is chosen, or the need for one, but it does make for another awkward moment as Sparky has to speak.

The one intriguing moment of the dunk tank event is when Conrad, throwing for NBC, is facing Kaplan in the tank. After a few select barbs tossed at one another, Conrad throws at Kaplan (safely inside the cage), to send a message, which is all fine and good, but then is still given his three throws at the target. Hey, if you're going to throw a purpose pitch, it should count. It does in the majors. Where's Sparky on this?

NBC wins after LeVar Burton for CBS fails miserably to come within 6 feet of the target with his throws. Cosell tries to cover the awful performance by suggesting Conrad's heckling had something to do with it, as though Conrad was a quick-witted master improv performer.

After the dunk tank, the scores are:

NBC - 275
ABC - 225
CBS - 175

Event #4: Obstacle Course

This event is always fun to watch. It's easy to see all the action and it's fun to compare past and present competitors, and thhis year is no exception. Billy Crystal is back after missing Battle 4, in hopes to atone for his awful performance in the III battle. You'd think Crystal spent summers with Cosell and Gifford with the way they're fawning over his athletic ability. Letterman barely gets an introduction as his competitor (Quick aside on Letterman. It's obvious he doesn't want to be there. and it's also obvious that he's a decent athlete, but I think it's his attitude that does him in. Frequently he's seen in background team shots of CBS, giving his now traditional sarcastic expressions. I love him for it).

Well, Crystal makes it through unscathed, but doesn't have the time to beat the two finalists: Tim Reid and Bill Devane - 2 great competitors. I have no idea why I'm so excited that Devane is competing; it's possible that as a child, watching Knots Landing with my mother, I developed a fascination with his overacting and devious ways on that show. Currently, I'm thrilled that Devane is slowly taking over the Dobson role for the show; steely eyed, competitive, and handsome.

Tim Reid is no stranger to me either. Frank's Place? Great show. And I bet the other 4 people who have seen it agree with me. But it was Venus Flytrap from WKRP in Cincinatti who will always hold a special place in my heart. Cool, smooth, funny and down with the soul.

So how can I choose a favorite between these two major television influences on my life? I can't. I can only root for a good race.

Unfortunately, it's not. Reid wins going away. Devane tried everything , but couldn't answer the long stride of Reid.

On the ladies' side of the event, it appears to be one of the stronger groups of competitors in the history of BotNS to date. Both Gifford and Cosell have been falling over themselves to compliment Brianne Leary's (of CHiPs fame) athletic ability. Apparently she used to be a gymnast at one point, before becoming an actress. Unfortunately, her "athleticism," doesn't translate well to the obstacle course, and her time doesn't hold up.

In Pat Klous' heat, she missteps over the water jump, resulting in a bruised ankle; you'd think she were shot however with the amount of fawning Cosell and Gifford do. The aid the medical team came up with to cover it doesn't do her any favors either; the guy in "Johnny Got His Gun (the Metallica video "One" for all you troglodytes) had less bandages.

The finals pit Valerie Bertinelli against Wendy Rastattar and in a very boring race Bertinelli clinches it. What isn't boring is LeVar Burton taking credit (and not in a joking way) for Bertinelli's victory, throwing McLean Stevenson under the bus. Hey, that guy was in MASH! Show some respect Burton!

Scores after the obstacle course:

NBC - 350
ABC - 275
CBS - 275

Event #5: Running Relay

Much like the rowing event, ABC has succeeded in the running relay, and a lot of the success can be attributed to Kaplan's pre-race strategy. But this race might be his toughest yet. Crystal and Hatch do everything they can, but Brianne Leary and a shirtless Conrad (why would he race in a shirt at this point?) are too much for ABC to overtake. In fact, Burton comes out of nowhere, making up for a baton drop (between Lou Ferigno and Bertinelli - which after the race Ferigno squarely throws the blame on Bertinelli) and eeks out second place for CBS. Along the way, he takes all the credit for it as well.

But the race belongs to NBC; Bottoms and Devane hold their own, and even with Tim Reid "running like a deer," (Cosell's description) no one can beat the NBC juggernaut.

Scores after the running relay...

NBC - 450
CBS - 350
ABC - 300

Event #6: Football

Aside from the very first running relay, with the Kapln/Conrad controversy and eventual run-off, this might be my favorite individual event. The amount of entertainment, intrigue and tension that took place on this football field in November of 1978 is hard to rival. I don't think I've made it a secret that I'm an ABC guy when it comes to who I root for, and before this event things looked bad for them to make it to the Tug o' War, which they have yet to miss. Mired in third place, they not only need to win, they need CBS to come in third.

Right off the bat, we see CBS roll over and play dead, as we're treated to a finals of CBS vs. ABC. Each team is given 6 offensive plays to score; a touchdown is worth 5 and all other catches are worth 2. A catch outside the endzone cannot be advanced however.

Now, the cynic in me briefly wonders whether Conrad would be cagey enough to throw this event in order to face ABC. It's no secret he hates Kaplan and ABC, plus, if he wins he has to face CBS and Lou Ferigno, and I don't see anyone beating that juggernaut. However, after watching Conrad's bizarre profile here:



I now realize there's no way Conrad would ever throw anything. (Aside: how many of you watching this thought it was a joke in the first 30 seconds, only to get a weird feeling in your gut when you realized Conrad was dead serious in the way he coached these kids. "Conditioned their bodies?" "Got these boys in shape?" You want to talk about unintentional comedy? Here you go ladies and gentlemen.

Instead of trying to describe just how incredible this football event is, I'm just going to let you watch it, in all its glory. Enjoy...



Highlights/Things to look out for:

Devane makes a game saving defensive play, batting down a pass
Need video proof that natural breasts look better than artificial ones? Check out those cheerleaders!
Bottoms takes a shot from someone on ABC; I want to say it's Crystal, but I'm not 100% sure
Richard Hatch's catch might be the best I've seen at any level.
Kaplan sack's Devane; it's the first time I've ever seen someone get sacked in this event.
Listen for Conrad tell his team toward the end to just go for 2 pointers because they can "score more than 14" with that strategy.

ABC pulls out the victory, ensuring they will make the finals against NBC.

Event #7: Tug o' War

It's too big a mountain to climb. After an epic battle in the football competition, it doesn't look like ABC can muster enough strength to beat NBC. Here are the guys on the rope:

NBC

Swaim
Devane
Shatner
Bottoms
Conrad (sans shirt of course)

ABC

Urich
Kaplan (anchor?)
Williams
Crystal
Hatch (wearing a parka, as he is possibly suffering from heat exhaustion)

Kaplan quickly assesses the situation and devises some crazy strategy of telling his team to not make an initial pull, in hopes of NBC falling off balance.

It doesn't work.

Sparky Anderson, the consummate commissioner keeps his eye on the flag and declares NBC the winner after about 90 seconds. While I'll always appreciate Kaplan trying new and different things, I'm not sure this was the time to employ something crazy. And he admits as much at the end, in the postgame interview, suggesting his team might have been able to pull off the upset had they simply gave the effort.

Two more random thoughts from this...

Caskey Swaim (he of one of my favorite shows of all time) is about as personable as a turnip.
Before we get out, we of course have to get one more Ork joke from Robin Williams, whose looks ready to murder the next person who says "Nanu Nanu."

Battle V is in the books, and we learned a lot of things. We learned Conrad certainly knows how to lead a team, whether it's a bunch of celebrities, or a 12 year old football squad. We learned William Devane is a very capable athlete, and may be a "Conrad in training." We learned CBS is satisfied to coast after their sole victory. We learned William Shatner likes to keep everything semi-formal. We learned LeVar Burton thinks very highly of himself.

And we learned that no matter what, athletes can be just as competitive as athletes, and definitely just as entertaining.

Until Battle VI, I bid you adieu.

8 comments:

Drew said...

I read your Things to look out for pre-football clip and the part about Hatch's catch and thought it hyperbole. Given the situation, the fact the guy is not a professional wide receiver, you would not get an argument from me about that being the greatest football catch of all time. Great throw too, as Kaplan slyly notes. Sounded like a fantastic version of BotNS.

Goose said...

For him to hold onto it - without pads so you know it hurt - is absolutely incredible. don't think these guys took it seriously?

mike said...

Fun reading. If these Battles ever come out in non-bootleg, unedited, DVD form, boy will I be tempted.

"Aside from looking as though he's about to attempt to regain an oil rig from Anthony Perkins" (I dare anyone to get that reference). You made a Ffolkes reference?!?!? Oh my. Methinks Mr. Conrad might have been annoyed with being compared to Roger Moore back then. Though if you believe Moore's new autobiography, if Conrad ever tried to take on Moore like Conrad did with Kaplan. it'd be a lot closer a fight then people think.

Goose said...

Please - Conrad would be disgusted with the blatant homosexual overtones from Moore's character in the film. I only thought there were 2 Ffolkes fans: myself and my friend Shawn. I now see there are three. Bravo on the catch.

Anonymous said...

What, no more?

Hehe, ffolkes.

Anonymous said...

I watched this battle again a few weeks ago. No, Letterman was definitely not a team player. He was no doubt simply there just for the money. However, watching him is very entertaining, an experience in itself. I agree, he was a good athlete. I was rooting for CBS, possibly because of him, but then again, I was rooting for them then, too. When I was reminded how it all unfolded recently, I was stunned by my extreme disappointment. That just shows how caught up you can get in these. All in all, it was still fun to watch, with Gabe's ridiculous tug of war strategy and all. Very cool assessment!

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