Earlier this week I read a piece on the TV Line website about the ABC network looking into a revival of Battle of the Network Stars. I immediately ceased work on my next blog so I could instead talk about why this will never, never work.
My misgivings should not be taken as disparagement of the original 19 Battles, which aired between 1976 and 1988. On the contrary – I consider them one of television’s crowning achievements, right alongside Roots and Walter Cronkite’s coverage of the first moon landing.
Where else could you watch Billy Crystal throw touchdown passes to Penny Marshall? Or hear Howard Cosell describe the athletic grace of Cathy Lee Crosby by quoting the John Keats poem “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer?” Or Leif Garrett mock Robert Conrad’s then advanced age of 44, only to have Conrad (who treated these competitions like they were Thunderdome) fire a fastball that dropped Leif’s punk ass into the baseball dunk tank, and stalk away with sublime satisfaction?
These specials were not an early equivalent of Dancing With the Stars, which (much as I love that show) tends to attract a lesser pedigree of celebrity. Back in the day the most popular television stars in the highest-rated television series spent a weekend on the glorious campus of Malibu’s Pepperdine University to compete in swimming contests and kayak races, to sprint and ride bicycles around an oval track, and to represent their networks with pride.
I could give you 100 reasons of why the original Battle of the Network Stars was awesome. But that still doesn’t mean the concept will work now. Here’s why.
1. Too Many Networks, Not Enough Stars
When the Battles began there were only three noteworthy sources for new television programs – ABC, CBS and NBC. Even if the FOX Network were now included the shows on their current schedules draw about 20% of the audience they earned in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Today’s TV stars are just as likely to emerge from the CW or HBO or Netflix. And even these series attract a tiny fraction of the viewers that watched a first-run episode of B.J. and the Bear. Part of what made the original Battles special was that viewers knew all 24 participants (8 from each network). There is not a single television actor now with the name and face recognition of an actor on a 1970s show that finished last in its time slot.
2. The Originals Were Unapologetically Sexy
There is no escaping the fact that part of the Battles’ appeal was seeing TV’s most attractive stars in tight-fitting athletic tops, shorts, and lycra swimsuits that became fairly transparent when wet. The feminine pulchritude on display was almost dizzying – Farrah Fawcett, Erin Gray, Suzanne Somers, Catherine Bach, Cheryl Ladd, Victoria Principal, Cheryl Tiegs, Randi Oakes, Donna Dixon, Shawn Weatherly.
And yes, there were also some appreciative squeals when Tom Selleck and Gregory Harrison stripped down to speedos, so it was equal opportunity ogling.
None of which is acceptable today, of course. To avoid accusations of objectifying actresses, and prevent Emma Watson from picketing by the swimming pool, participants would have to wear swimwear from the 1920s. Or burqas.
3. Our Relationship to Celebrities Has Changed
From the earliest days of motion pictures through the era in television when the Battles debuted, celebrities held an otherworldly fascination for much of the American public. We wanted to know what they were really like. We wanted to see the actor behind the character, and the person behind the actor. The Battle of the Network Stars offered a way to do that. Now we get this insight direct from the sources, on their Facebook and Instagram pages. There is no longer any curtain to peek behind.
4. Once, Winning Actually Mattered
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the original Battles was that the stars competed for real financial stakes: $20,000 for members of the winning team, $15,000 for second, $10,000 for third. That was pretty good cheddar 35 years ago. I remember after one ABC victory Heather Thomas jubilantly exclaiming, “Gonna buy a fur coat!” Something else someone can’t say anymore. I’m sure money wasn’t the only reason the stars went all out – there was personal pride and network pride at stake as well. But it didn’t hurt.
5. It’s Been Tried Before
Remember the 2003 revival featuring only NBC stars? How about the Battle of the Network Reality Stars, with contestants from Survivor, The Apprentice and American Idol? Me neither. I rest my case. Nothing will ever top the original, one and only, never-to-be-forgotten, Howard Cosell hosted Battle of the Network Stars.