The TV series Cops is in its 24th season. Survivor began its 24th season this month (although its been around half as long as Cops). Cops began because of scrambling network executives who needed to put something on TV in light of a writer’s strike. And its all gone downhill from there. Like Huey Lewis used to say, “sometimes bad is bad.”
Yet someone is watching this stuff. American Idol and Dancing with the Stars show little signs of fading away. What part of the collective psyche of the modern TV viewer makes so many of us show up each week for this kind of programming? And it’s not just an American pastime. As an example, Survivor variants can be found all over the planet. Networks love these shows because they don’t need to hire the best, aka most expensive, writers. They can basically put anything out there and we will watch it.
Back before “immunity” and “voting people off the island” there was an earlier counterpart to shows like Dancing with the Stars. Battle of the Network Stars was a series of 19 specials back when we had three networks to watch. Like Dancing with the Stars, sometimes the celebrities were just barely celebrities, but more likely than not the general population would be able to identify who was competing on the semi-annual show. Battle of the Network Stars pitted stars from each network against each other in several physical games, such as football, running, biking, golf, volleyball, swimming, and even kayaking. At the end of each 2-hour tourney the two highest scoring networks would compete in a tug-of-war battle to the death (OK, not really, actually just a good old-fashioned tug-of-war).
Overall the shows were successful. They were fun, generally light-hearted, and only rarely did competitors seem to be fiercely competing or all-out angry when they lost. The shows weren’t about ostracizing anyone, or making fun of competitors. They generally reflected what you would see in neighborhood softball games at home. More like Dancing with the Stars than other current reality shows, you found yourself cheering for someone to succeed more than hoping anyone would fail.
Just watch this single race and count how many celebrities are still on TV, including David Letterman and Billy Crystal:
A Hulk team-up with Geordi LaForge? Awesome!
The shows began in 1976 and ended in 1985. To add to the spirit of competition, Howard Cosell was the host of the shows, announcing the play-by-play as if he were announcing the Super Bowl, often over-exaggerating and parodying his own animated announcing style.
One of the best parts of the Battles were the networks’ coaches who served to anchor the teams and cheer on the sometimes athletically-challenged participants. The first captains were Gabe Kaplan, Robert Conrad and Telly Savalas. William Shatner and Tom Selleck would later serve as popular captains, among others.
For fans of these actors and actresses in the years before most of the country would have access to Fan Cons, this was a rare chance to see that these celebrities were normal people like the rest of us. Of course, in hindsight it is hard to get past some obvious style changes, especially “short shorts.” Ultimately the shows were about being good sports, although there was plenty of humorous trash talk between the networks. You could imagine that these actors, many still on TV and even in movies, would probably not want to go back and watch these shows, celebrities like Bruce Boxleitner, Michael J. Fox, Heather Locklear, Rosalind Chao, Morgan Fairchild, Stephen Collins, Jameson Parker, Cheryl Ladd, Valerie Bertinelli, Howard Hesseman, Lynda Carter, Richard Hatch, Adrienne Barbeau, Levar Burton, Kurt Russell, David Letterman, Lou Ferrigno, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal.
The biggest difference between Battle of the Network Stars in the 1970s and 1980s and reality competition shows of 2012? Back then Battle of the Network Stars was the exception. It aired twice per year. We weren’t saturated with battle shows and celebrities not doing what celebrities were meant to do on TV, like act in dramas, mysteries and comedies.
When you see good TV you know it. If you’ve watched shows like the popular Downton Abbey and The Hour from BBC TV and public television, shows like Mad Men on AMC, Homeland on Showtime, long-running network shows like House, MD on Fox or the several Law and Order series on NBC, you know a lot of time and effort and creativity went into the formulation of these productions. We can’t help feel a little guilty when watching a show about a couple guys running a pawn shop. And maybe we should.
Did audiences in the 1970s and 1980s know something we don’t know? Did the networks? It may sometimes feel like we will never come out of this glut of reality TV. But there’s always hope. Creative and interesting series like NBC’s new supernatural mystery Awake, dramas like The Closer and In Plain Sight, comedies like Psych and New Girl, genre shows like Warehouse 13 and Lost Girl, all make you think there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. And just for the fun of it, how about dumping all the reality shows and bring back some goofy fun like Battle of the Network Stars?