Written by Cavan O’Grady
When the Battle of the Network Stars premiered in 1976 it was instant television gold for several reasons, including: the 3 major networks competing dominated television, the stars on them were extremely famous because of that dominance, the events they participated in could be fun or serious (and sometimes both simultaneously), and combining sports and celebrity simply worked.
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Here are 10 fun facts about the show that lasted over a decade (with one or two episodes a year) in its original run:
Let The Games Begin!
1) Battle of the Network Stars started as a sort of spin-off of the popular ABC show, The Superstars, in which professional athletes competed in sports outside of their normal realm. In the first Superstars in 1973, this premise came close to tragedy, as heavyweight champion boxer Joe Frazier nearly drowned in a 50 meter swim race; only afterwards did Frazier admit that he didn’t know how to swim and added, “How was I to know I couldn’t unless I tried it?” After that producers no doubt were a lot more careful in vetting event participants. The Superstars continued on and off at different times on ABC, CBS and NBC through 2009.
2) The first Battle of the Network Stars on November 13, 1976 began with the following narration by William Conrad (of then Cannon and later Jake and the Fatman fame) as if he were setting the scene for King Lear:
“The story you’re about to see is true. The names have not been changed. It is the tale of a great war. Once upon a time in a seacoast town, three fearless leaders of great renown summoned the men, the women, and the young to do battle for glory, for honor, and pride. The lines were drawn, the intent was clear: those that gathered would clash without fear…They came girding for battle to hurl themselves against each other in mortal combat, all lusting for victory at any cost. And when they met, it was called… the Battle Of The Network Stars!”
Battle Of The Network Stars: The Leaders
3) The “three fearless leaders” in that first broadcast were Telly Savalas of CBS’s Kojak, Robert Conrad of NBC’s Baa Baa Black Sheep, and Gabe Kaplan of ABC’s Welcome Back, Kotter and they each led tv stars from their respective networks through athletic competitions for fabulous cash prizes. Events included the swimming relay, tennis, golf, the baseball dunk, the obstacle course, the running relay, and the tug-of-war.
4) Television stars appearing on game shows and variety shows (much like talk shows then and now) on competing networks was common practice at the time so the concept didn’t ruffle many feathers on the three networks as far as PR went, though it did as far as the occasional injury that competitors experienced. “It wasn’t hard to get competitors. We wanted them to be athletic but not too athletic,” according to supervising producer Bill Garnet.
5) Iconic sports broadcaster Howard Cosell hosted the program and usually treated events with the weight of an Ali-Frazier (the aforementioned near-drowner) title fight, with hard hitting questions afterwards. Though he usually lightened up a bit when surrounded by several stars.
6) The prizes in 1976 for individuals on the teams started out at $10,000 for 3rd, $15,000 for 2nd, and $20,000 for 1st. Competitors did not take this lightly for essentially a weekend’s work. As a comparison, the players on the Pittsburgh Steelers received $15,000 that same year for winning the Super Bowl.
Battle Of The Network Stars: An Incident
7) The most famous incident in the history of the program probably occurred in the very first broadcast in 1976. CBS team captain Telly Savalas protested after the relay race that winner NBC had handed off the baton too soon at one point, though CBS had finished a distant third. The officials eventually penalized NBC two seconds and ABC was awarded first place with NBC second. This would seem to be a fair compromise and put an end to things, but not for NBC captain Robert Conrad. He huffed and puffed and threatened to pull his team from the entire competition. After much back and forth, Conrad challenged ABC captain Gabe Kaplan to a 100 yard run-off. An odd change of direction to decide things, but Kaplan quickly agreed.
Now on the surface this didn’t look promising for ABC. The Vegas odds would not have been pretty for Mr. Kaplan. Conrad played a Marine on his show and also dared people to knock a battery off of his shoulder in a commercial, while Kaplan… played a former “Sweathog” and looked the part. But Kaplan (unbeknownst to Conrad and viewers) had run track in high school and felt very confident. And so the sprint to decide the event occurred with Kaplan walking away triumphantly. It all made for great television, even if it didn’t completely make sense.
Billy Crystal vs. David Letterman
8) One memorable clash was between Billy Crystal and David Letterman in the obstacle course in 1979. Crystal starred on Soap at the time and Letterman was on the short-lived The Mary Tyler MooreHour (a variety show in which Michael Keaton also starred and for which they kidded each other on Dave’s talk shows for decades to come). Billy had injured himself in the previous Battle, knocking his teeth into some ropes, losing badly, and was determined to make up for it. Dave was just ecstatic to be on a television program where he didn’t have to participate in a song-and-dance number. Crystal won going away.
9) The swimming relay and the baseball dunk (in which a star would sit on a platform, which would collapse if the target was hit, and they’d go flying into a tank of water) were competitive, fun, and a way to get television stars like Tom Selleck and Lynda Carter wet. Nielsen ratings didn’t suffer.
A Tug of War
10) The competitions were often decided by the tug-of-war between the top two teams. Unlike some of the lighter events, it often was a long and grueling struggle. With money on the line, competitors were determined to win and the sometimes hours-long (much shortened for television) events ended the Battle dramatically!
Written by Cavan O’Grady
The show was a true spectacle, with events like the obstacle course, the dunk tank, and the relay race testing the athletic abilities of the participants. But it wasn’t just about the physical prowess of the stars; it was also about their competitive spirit and their willingness to leave it all out on the field.
Perhaps the most iconic event of Battle of the Network Stars was the tug-of-war. It was a test of strength, endurance, and teamwork, and it often came down to the wire. The tension was palpable as the two teams dug their heels in and pulled with all their might, hoping to emerge victorious.
In the end, Battle of the Network Stars was more than just a fun and entertaining television program. It was a testament to the power of teamwork, determination, and the human spirit. And for the millions of viewers who tuned in each year, it was a reminder that anything is possible with hard work and a little bit of luck.