Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Memory Bank: Battle of the Network Stars (1976 - 1988)

I love the 1970s.  

There’s no other way to say it. It was such a weird and wonderful time, and sometimes I wish I could convey better the nature of the decade to my young son, or even to readers here on the blog who are too young to have lived through it.   

Sure, it’s the decade of Star Wars, Space: 1999, Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, The Spy Who Loved Me, Superman: The Movie, King Kong, Logan’s Run, Alien and many other personal favorites. 

And it’s also the decade of Atari, the Bicentennial Celebration, Mork and Mindy and Saturday Night Fever. 

It’s even the span of Bigfoot and Killer Bees, as I’ve noted here before.

But here’s the underlying factor that I remember so fondly about the pop culture landscape of the 1970s:

It had not yet been fractured, or as I like to put it, “balkanized.”

In the 1970s, cable television was still in its infancy, and the day’s news ran only at 6:00 pm, not on a 24-hour cycle.

We had three major networks from which to choose original new programming…and that was it.

Yes, we had local stations and PBS too, but our choices for televised entertainment were limited. 

The down-side of that limit, of course, is a lack of choice. 

The up-side is that everyone in America spoke the same pop culture language.  Everyone had seen The Twilight Zone, All in the Family, Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch and Mission: Impossible.   

It was a limited universe, to be sure, but a shared one.  Those of Generation X (like me) still speak this brand of short-hand, one consisting of theme songs and memories that all began with the words “remember the one where….”

After those words, you could be talking Trek, The Twilight Zone or even Happy Days.

Looking back, I must conclude that this era of a shared pop culture ended, finally, in the late 1990s when Seinfeld went off the air. That series (and also The X-Files) seem to be the last of a breed.  They were TV series that all of America united to watch, and talked about around the coffee cooler the next day.

Today, you have to tailor your discussion of television (like Walking Dead, Mad Men and Dexter) to the right demographic, a much smaller demographic. I can’t talk to my mother-in-law about Fringe or American Horror Story, for instance.  She’s never heard of either…

Wonder Woman, Mr. Kotter, Howard Cosell, and Barney Miller join forces.
And this is the very reason that weird 1970s relics like Battle of the Network Stars are so entertaining and intriguing to me, even today, in 2012. 

This “contest” program ran on and off -- once or twice a year -- for roughly a dozen years, from 1976 to 1988.  The program was hosted by the incredibly pompous and bizarre Howard Cosell (1918 – 1995), and it brought together the stars of network television for some friendly outdoors competition.

You couldn’t do this kind of thing today.  Now, you’d have AMC, FX, MTV, HBO, Showtime, Fox, The CW, plus ABC, NBC and CBS all in competition. 

It would be Battle of the Network Cluster-fuck. 

But back in the day, a lot of awesome TV stars got together for these periodic competitions on ABC, and the shows were always…amusing to say the least.

I remember, in particular, the games of the year 1978, because they featured the stars of Battlestar Galactica: Richard Hatch and Maren Jensen, as well the Hulk himself, Lou Ferrigno. 

William Shatner in the 1983 games.
And last but never least the sublime William Shatner was also a player.

Even at the time, I couldn’t believe I was seeing Captain Kirk and Captain Apollo on the same playing field, essentially.

On the Battle of the Network Stars, the various TV celebrities competed on teams (ABC, CBS, NBC) in events like kayaking, swimming, tennis, the baseball dunk, track-and-field, an obstacle course (?!), and my personal favorite: the tug of war.

I suppose I was about eight or nine when I watched the 1978 show, and to me it was just amazing to see my favorite characters interacting as real life people, instead of as Colonial Warriors or Starfleet officers.

This is how you know I’m a geek. I actually preferred watching Maren Jensen and Richard Hatch compete on Battle of the Network Stars than Nadia Comaneci competing at the Olympics. 

Nadia, after all, never battled the Cylons, Ovions, or Count Iblis.

As cheesy and silly as they were, The Battle of the Network Stars fostered a kind of intimacy with the actors on TV that we don’t really get today, because the entertainment universe is so splintered and so politically correct.  Even unscripted TV show performers of Jersey Shore-ilk appear in tightly-scripted PR appearances devoid of spontaneity and surprises.

On The Battle of the Network Stars, that wasn’t the case. You might see outbreaks of temper and vanity or moments of laughs and unexpected camaraderie.  It was humanizing in a way that today seems positively quaint. 

It’s not quite the same thing as being a game show contestant.  On Battle of the Network Stars, a lot of celebrities let their hair down, and I always thought was pretty cool. 

Below are some clips from the 1978 Battle of the Network Stars

Please revel in them – and in the 1970s -- as I do.  The first clip below features Hatch, Shatner, and David Letterman...


  1. Anonymous4:00 PM

    John, I agree, Battle of the Network Stars is an excellent example of the intimacy of the ‘70s into the ‘80s. It was truly a special time we were all sharing the same experiences. I personally think it was a better time to grow up during. I loved being a boy in the ‘70s into the '80s.


  2. "friendly outdoors competition" -- Except for Robert Conrad, who always behaved like it was life or death. I always rooted for him to get stuck in the baseball dunk. :-P

  3. There was a syndicated show (I want to show hosted by John Davidson, but that's just because he did many shows at the time) in the late 1980s featuring the casts of old TV shows competing in various events. Normally the teams were hybrids formed from more than one show, but they would make the point that _The Brady Bunch_ was ideal in giving a team the right numbers. I also remember that Jerry Mathers (who had put on a decent amount of weight as he grew up) proved to be incredibly fast on a track. Does anyone remember the title? I don't think any of the shows were airing at the time (unless maybe one counts _Still the Beaver_.)

  4. Oh man, a classic blast from the past. This and Saturday morning cartoons (along with Galactica and Star Trek reruns) were staples.