From the edge of reason…and sanity…

Why ABC’s Battle of the Network Stars won’t survive – and why it should

I grew up with television from the 70s and 80s, and one of the things I looked forward to most was the once or twice a year specials which featured the stars doing different things…like ABC’s Battle of the Network Stars – that was reality TV back then. I loved it so much that I still have recordings of all but two episodes, and when ESPN Classic started showing the old ones, I watched them over and over…

The show was a variety sports competition based on the similar format of NBC’s SuperStars and SuperTeams, pitting three teams – one from each of the three major broadcast networks back then, ABC, NBC and CBS – consisting of eight to nine competitors from that network’s current shows. And it was very competitive…each were competing for real money, and some of them were just naturally competitive. There was a variety of competitions, from standard running, cycling and swimming relays, to more fun stuff like the dunk tank and Simon Says, as well as 3-on-3 football, the famous obstacle course, and the infamous finale, the Tug Of War. ABC’s own Howard Cosell would host with a different co-host each time, with the exception of the 18th Battle, filmed in Hawaii instead of the usual Pepperdine University and hosted by Joan Van Ark and Dick Van Dyke.

Who could forget the very first running relay, where ABC captain Gabe Kaplan protested the NBC team’s run as one of the men moved backwards to get the baton from one of the slower women early, and NBC captain Robert Conrad went NUTS, made some comments that would get fried on Twitter these days, and challenged Kaplan to a run off, which Kaplan agreed to…and Kaplan promptly blew the doors off the cigar-smoking Conrad…

The battles were filmed on location at Pepperdine University in Pasadena, California, over a couple days with live crowds with cheerleaders to help elevate the excitement and energy levels.

Looking back, it was interesting how ABC managed to get people from the other networks to compete, something that probably wouldn’t fly these days. But the other networks and their shows got promoted, and I don’t know if there was an agreement to co-share with the other networks – CBS had a “spiritual cousin” of the show, Circus Of The Stars. I can’t remember if NBC had one. Even for the second battle, it seemed as if appearances weren’t sanctioned by the other networks – the teams were instead known as “Friends of NBC”, etc. and logos weren’t used, but by the third battle that seemed to be resolved.

I was intrigued when NBC acquired the rights to bring the show back in 2003, but the one pilot special they did really had little to do with the original, with a two-team Red vs. Blue format with mediocre level stars and unrelated competitions. Then a couple years later Bravo tried again with Battle of the Network Reality Stars, which served nothing more than to give a lot of people an extra 15 minutes.

So when ABC announced they were bringing the show back again closer to the original format, back at Pepperdine where the original battles took place, I had cautious optimism. They wouldn’t use network-based teams, but rather have a two team competition with the teams representing some “theme”, like “TV Doctors” or “Cops”, and the competitors would be drawn from current and past stars including a number that competed in the original show, such as Fred Dwyer, Lorenzo Lamas, Ted Lange and Jill Whelan. Many of the original competitions would be back as well.

So when the first one finally aired in July, I was excited – but then quickly deflated. It wasn’t that the competition was bad, but it was lacking something. And I realized what that was – energy.

First, while it is was being filmed in the same place, there was NO ONE around. Absolutely no crowd is present, so there is no cheering, no crowd noise at all, and it really affects the viewer watching it.

In the same vein, the teams are smaller, at 5 competitors each. This means in a cooperative event like the running relay, there are less people to choose from. And given that some teams may be younger and some older and very different skill levels, there are serious competitive differences. A running relay team of 4 with only five people to choose from means only one sits out, but you may have two who physically have issues running the distance. The races are seldom close. The relay competitions are also shorter, giving teams less ability to make up for a sub-par performance from one member. And a number of the competitions are one player head-to-head games as well. I mean, one swing of a golf club, closest to the pin, between two people? Exciting stuff, especially when they don’t even have a camera angle showing how well each did.

It’s also clear that it was filmed quite a while ago, while the weather was colder. It’s kinda hard to swim in a tracksuit.

Obviously they aren’t looking for the one-off specials of the past, hence the number of teams.

So here are a few improvements I’d REALLY like to see.

First…increase the size of the teams. You need more choices to compete in the multi-player competitions, to make them a lot closer. 7-8 team members would probably be good.

With more competitors, lengthen some of them as well. The swimming and kayak relays need to be longer to help make up for a sub-par performer or simple errors.

I think making it a three-way competition again would also help in keeping the competitions a bit closer and more to watch.

Bring back some of the fun games – the baseball dunk they have now is perhaps a bit more “extreme”, being on a beam far above the pool, but it is at the same time less exciting.

To make this last several weeks, you could do it tournament style. To switch things up, have more competitions and switch them out for different rounds. Or shift teams around each week, swap in some new players, etc.

And please, PLEASE, put an onsite audience to cheer them on…

There is a lot of history to build from here, and it’s possible to bring back the energy of the original, but it has a long way to go. Let’s hope ABC sees the potential and takes the steps to get there.