Remember when tv stars were small screen heroes and part-time athletes? While some idolize Olympic athletes or pro-sports superstars, I was one of many who were obsessed with the laughs, the competition and the ridiculousness of the Battle of the Network Stars.
Launched in November 1976, Battle of the Network Stars was two hours of fun and frivolity. Teams from the three TV networks – ABC, NBC and CBS – picked their hot properties to compete in a variety of athletic competitions from kayaking, swimming and cycling to the basketball dunk, running relay and the obstacle course. Led by team captains, the team mates were quizzed by sports host Howard Cosell, whose distinct voice and broadcast style mimicked his usual day job of the wide world of sports.
Howard Cosell gets the lowdown from Welcome Back Kotter star Gabe Kaplan.
I watched these specials, loving the silliness and the ability to spot my fave stars. Lyle Waggoner, Jamie Farr, Gabe Kaplan, Kristy McNichol and Penny Marshall were all on the first special, household names of the late ‘70s. The culmination was always the final competition – the tug o’ war. Remember when this was an accepted part of gym class? Now in the safety cautious, super sensitive 21st century, no one would allow two groups to grab a rope and try to pull the opposing group into a pool of water or mud or just to fall flat on their faces.
I realized how these major tv stars – recognized for their popular tv series – were happy to kick down the celeb glam and mock themselves up as athletes. Wearing short shorts and the American red, white and blue, team mates became aggressively competitive, wanting to win for the glory, not increased ratings, signing bonuses or merchandising deals.
Despite my allegiance to these specials, I didn’t realize they continued on well into the 1980s. NBC tried to resurrect the series in 2003 using its own stars, but to little notice. Viewers liked the competition of network versus network versus network, and the campy competitive vibe.
ABC will debut a new series tonight: Superstars. Pairing up athletes with tv stars, the teams will compete for ratings and earn a reality star salary – a career boost, some money and ongoing coverage in the entertainment media news cycle. But the seriousness and the killer edge is what puts me off. I want the halcyon silliness of old – so I’ll go to Youtube and laugh at ‘70s stars, willing to have a good time, celeb persona be damned.