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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Battle of the Network Stars

I'll be the first one to admit that a conversation with a couple of online friends sparked today's subject.  And, at the same time, I'll remark that it also happens to be on a television show that I am too young to remember.  After all, the last time the series aired was in 1988, when I was just seven.

But, you know what they say...I love a challenge.

Anyway, this discussion began when someone posted a video of this very show online.  It was a show that I had, of course, heard of but don't remember watching it.  Again, you kind of had to have been around in the 1970s to really appreciate it.  It was a show that combined celebrities with athletic events that one might see during the Summer Olympics.  A disaster in the making?  Not so.

I mean, we've all tuned in to some of these "celebreality" competitions over the last decade or so.  The twenty-first century seems to be the era of reality television (whether we embrace it or not), and certainly there are lots of examples in which we've seen celebrities competing against each other.  In the United Kingdom, "Celebrity Big Brother" and "I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!" are huge.  In the United States, "The Celebrity Apprentice" and "Dancing With The Stars" are still very popular.  And, well...shows like "Celebracadabra" and "Stars Earn Stripes" only lasted one season.  Still, with lots of Y-list and Z-list celebrities turning to reality television in one final shot at stardom, I don't think that we're going to see an end to it any time soon.

Well, what if I told you that today's show topic predates all of those reality shows by at least three decades?  And that the celebrities that participated in this show were current stars from what were considered to be the cream of the television crop?  You'd have a hard time believing me, huh?

Prepare to be blown away.

How many of you have heard of the television show "Battle of the Network Stars"?  It's okay if you haven't.  As I said before, the last time this show aired on network television was over twenty-five years ago. 

I'll go over the show history with you right now.

Once upon a time - exact date, November 13, 1976 - there once was a show that aired on ABC called "Battle of the Network Stars".  You see, back in the days before cable television (and yes, Virginia, there was a world without cable television), people only had a total of twelve channels to choose from (if you were lucky).  And since my family didn't get cable television until 1988, my childhood was strictly limited to these twelve channels.  Scary this is, I remember the original twelve channels in my area.  Just to prove it, here they are...

02 - TVONTARIO (Toronto, Ontario)
03 - GLOBAL TELEVISION (Toronto, Ontario)
04 - CBC (Ottawa, Ontario)
05 - CBS (Detroit, Michigan)
06 - NBC (Detroit, Michigan)
07 - CBS (Watertown, New York)
08 - PBS (Watertown, New York)
09 - CBOFT (French version of CBC)
11 - CKWS (Kingston, Ontario)
12 - ABC (Detroit, Michigan)
13 - CTV/CJOH (Ottawa, Ontario)

I'm still not sure how we ended up with two CBS affiliates.  And, I don't know why we received stations from Detroit when I believe New York City (or even Syracuse for that matter) is closer to my hometown.  Things that make one go hmmmm...

Anyway, the ones highlighted in blue are the three networks that took part in "Battle of the Network Stars".  And, yes, Virginia, there was once a time in which we only had three networks to choose from.  FOX didn't come along until 1986, and the CW was a merger between the WB and UPN - both of which were launched in 1995.

(Coincidentally, this is one reason why I believe that "Battle of the Network Stars" hasn't been resurrected since 1988.  Way too many networks.  I mean, you'd almost have to make it a month-long event if you throw in HBO, Bravo, AMC, TV Land, and the Game Show Channel in the mix.)

But getting back to the "Battle of the Network Stars", how it worked was like this.  The three networks would have their own team of athletes.  Usually the teams consisted of anywhere from eight to nine celebrities from some of network television's biggest television shows, and each team would have its own captain.

TRIVIA:  In the nineteen different editions of the program, there have only been two female captains of a team.  One was "That's Incredible" hostess Cathy Lee Crosby for the ABC team in May 1980, and the other was Barbara Mandrell in May 1981 from the NBC variety show "Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters".  All the other captains were men.

The catch was that all the ABC stars formed one team, all the CBS stars formed one team, and so on.

Let's take a look at the debut episode in November 1976, shall we?

On the ABC team, you had Gabe Kaplan from "Welcome Back, Kotter" as captain - an ABC show.  And some of the team members included Ron Howard from "Happy Days", and Farrah Fawcett from "Charlie's Angels" - ABC shows.

The CBS team had Telly Savalas from "Kojak" as captain - a CBS show.  And members on that team included Jimmie Walker from "Good Times" and Mackenzie Phillips from "One Day At A Time" - both CBS shows.

I'm sure you get the gist by now, but let's do the NBC one as well, just for the heck of it.  The NBC captain in 1976 was Robert Conrad from "Black Sheep Squadron" - an NBC show.  And members of that team included Kevin Tighe from "Emergency!" and Karen Grassle from "Little House on the Prairie" - both...get this...NBC shows.  Shocker, huh?

TRIVIA:  Gabe Kaplan holds the record for most times as team captain.  And he's the only one to serve as team captain of two different networks.  He was captain of the ABC team for the first five editions of the show, and was a one-time captain of the NBC team in December 1981.

Now at first glance, you might think that this show was almost designed to be a parody of the Olympic games, and that it wasn't taken very seriously.  And, I suppose in some ways it was, as some of the events were considered to be a little bit goofy and cheesy.  How many Olympic competitions can you recall where someone won a gold medal for a rousing game of "Simon Says"?

I have to admit though...seeing celebrities playing along and being good sports about it does make me smile a little.

To be fair though, the show really did have other legitimate sports that the stars all took part in.  Sports like kayaking.

And a running relay.

And swimming relays.

(And, yes Virginia, there was a time in which the Speedo was the most popular choice for male swimwear.  Thank goodness those days are seemingly over.)

At the end of the show, the points were added up amongst the three teams and the two teams that had the highest totals would compete in the "Tug-of-War" competition.  Here's one of these tug-of-war competitions from November 1979. 

By the way, I should mention that the announcer of the majority of the "Battle of the Network Stars" specials was Howard Cosell, who those of you who are old enough will remember as the official voice of ABC Sports during the 1970s and 1980s.  Mind you, Cosell wasn't as serious in the "Battle of the Network Stars" specials as he was covering "Monday Night Football", but I think he did very well covering the events.

I only wish I could have found information on which network ended up being the one that won the most competitions.  Alas, I came up empty.  But, I watched some of the tug-of-war competitions that were available online, and I think I came up with a partial list.

MAY 1979 - CBS
MAY 1980 - ABC
MAY 1981 - CBS
MAY 1982 - CBS
MAY 1983 - CBS
MAY 1984 - ABC
MAY 1985 - NBC

I couldn't find the ones for 1977, I'm afraid.  But looking at the list, it's pretty even.  ABC has six competitions won, but the other networks had five a piece.  Not bad.  Again, I suppose a lot of strategy would work in this case, as you'd ideally want to have strong people at the front and rear and everyone else forming the middle.

And, that's our look back at "Battle of the Network Stars".  Personally speaking, I'd like to see it come back, but again with too many networks these days, it'd be hard to do...

...unless you only had five networks taking part and the show aired for a whole week instead of just a day or two.

I mean, think of it.  You'd have representatives from ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and the CW.

Could you picture a relay race with Patrick Dempsey, Jim Parsons, Allison Sweeney, David Boreanaz, and Tyra Banks

Or, how about a kayaking race with Tom Bergeron, Jeff Probst, Mae Whitman, Lea Michele, and Rachel Bilson?

Or, can you just picture a game of Simon Says with
Nathan Fillion, Scott Caan, James Spader, Gordon Ramsey, and Nina Dobrev?

I mean, the possibilities could be endless...and entertaining!

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