THE BOOTLEG FILES: BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS

BOOTLEG FILES 417: “Battle of the Network Stars” (1976-1988 series of ABC-TV specials).

LAST SEEN: Bits and pieces of the shows are scattered around YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Never made available for commercial home entertainment release.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.

Once upon a time – actually, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s – life was much simpler. Only three national networks dominated American television, and the TV-viewing publicly happily allowed their lives to be disrupted twice a year by something called “Battle of the Network Stars.”

A bizarre hybrid of proto-reality television mixed with quasi-athletics and iced with good-natured stupidity, “Battle of the Network Stars” brought together prominent actors from the popular TV series on each of the networks. The “battle” was on the sports field – actually, Pepperdine University’s athletic facilities – and each team consisted of eight actors who competed in various feats of strength, speed and silliness. ABC broadcast this production and brought in its resident loudmouth sports commentator Howard Cosell to serve as master of ceremonies.

“Battle of the Network Stars” was a spinoff from another ABC series called “Superstars,” which was broadcast on Sunday afternoons. “Superstars” had champion athletes competing against each other in a number of different sports. The series had a jokey “celebrity” episode where a number of B-listers turned up, mostly for self-deprecatory laughs. The idea of mixing entertainers and sports somehow evolved into a two-hour special that aired on ABC in prime time in November 1976.

Needless to say, there is a big difference between watching serious sporting events and watching the likes of Penny Marshall and Mackenzie Phillips navigate an obstacle course. Offering a mix of track and swimming with less-than-strenuous events such as Simon Says, tug-of-war and a dunk tank, the show was not aimed at the sports fanatics. Even the presence of Cosell and Olympic decathlon champ (and future Kardashian stooge) Bruce Jenner as a back-up commentator did not give the program any degree of sports cred.

Instead, “Battle of the Network Stars” was aimed strictly at the easily amused, with the stars chosen for either their good looks or their ability to improvise snappy comments – a combo of eye candy and funnybone caressing.

The endeavor got off to a somewhat bizarre start with a premiere that was marked in controversy – the results of a relay race were called into question when CBS team captain Telly Savalas insisted that NBC’s runners engaged in an illegal baton hand-off that gave the Peacock Network actors an unfair advantage. NBC team captain Robert Conrad was incensed by the attempt to disqualify his runners, while ABC team captain Gabe Kaplan seemed baffled that anyone was taking this seriously. Cosell helped stir the shit and turned this meaningless pageant into a controversy – which wound up with ABC gaining the victory when the judges decided that NBC had been at fault.

Not happy with the results, Conrad then challenged a startled Kaplan to a one-on-one race to settle the score. Conrad, however, did not know that the comic ran track in high school. Kaplan easily beat an embarrassed Conrad.

The 1976 premiere had some more pleasant distractions, including Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Lee Meriwether playing golf and Lynda Carter and Adrienne Barbeau in designer swimwear. Gossip columnist Rona Barrett also turned up for some benign dirt-dishing, while funnymen Jimmie Walker and Demond Wilson added an urban vibe to an otherwise white-bread meal.

Actually, the show was fairly daring for ABC, since it was using a handsome chunk of its schedule to promote the stars of rival networks. But the popularity of the initial offering was so strong that ABC opted to air two “Battle of the Network Stars” specials each year. And every spring and fall, the program – like a seasonal cold – would turn up.

Considering the nature of the production, “Battle of the Network Stars” managed to bring in a large number of prominent TV actors of the period. Among those who swam, ran, pulled and mugged their way through the events were Michael J. Fox, Joan Collins, Edward Asner, Robin Williams, William Shatner, Jane Curtin, Joe Piscopo and Mr. T. The program also included a number of actors who were barely known at the time, but who would later go on to the proverbial bigger and better: Billy Crystal (who had a supporting role on ABC’s “Soap”), David Letterman (who was part of the CBS team for his ensemble work in a failed Mary Tyler Moore comedy), and Helen Hunt (who was on the barely-seen ABC sitcom “It Takes Two”).

Incredibly, the whole concept worked. The idea of seeing stars out of their element – the world of scripted, directed, canned entertainment – and in the realm of sloppy and often reckless sporting events had a weird charm, and a number of surprise performances (such as Kaplan outrunning Conrad) added to the fun. Also, the shows spent a great deal of time around water – swimming, kayaking and the dunk tank allowed the studly actors to go shirtless and the curvaceous ladies to be shoehorned into tight swimwear. And each show was inevitably staffed with a reigning TV pin-up or two, in order to satisfy the tween and teen set: the likes of Scott Baio, Jaclyn Smith, Cheryl Ladd, Adrian Zmed and Heather Locklear were on happy display.

As with any hit show, “Battle of the Network Stars” inspired ripoffs. CBS and NBC offered copycat specials with actors paired in athletic competitive teams, while CBS would take the fish-out-of-water element to a sawdust setting with its “Circus of the Stars” specials that put the actors in zany acrobatic feats of daring.

ABC’s formula worked well up until the spring of 1985. Perhaps it was the mistake of including the perennial jump-the-shark jinx Ted McGinley in the mix, but the network abruptly pulled the plug after that go-round. A belated follow-up aired in 1988, but by then times changed: cable TV reconfigured the small screen landscape and broadcast networks were airing fewer one-shot specials. The idea for “Battle of the Network Stars” would be revived two decades later when MTV would match its “Road Rules” and “Real World” stars for similar competitions, but those shows lacked the spontaneity and good humor of the original concept.

Years after its run, episodes of “Battle of the Network Stars” turned up as retro treats on ESPN and the Trio cable network. However, the 19 specials created under this franchise have never been the subject of a commercial home entertainment release. Bits and pieces of the specials can be found on YouTube, and some bootleggers sell unauthorized DVDs based on the cable rebroadcasts. In the absence of an official release, this is the only way to enjoy this wonderful slice of vintage cheese.

Now, you will have to excuse me, because I need to go back to YouTube and get another look at Lynda Carter swimming for the glory of ABC – go, Wonder Woman!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on March 2, 2012 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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