A Nostalgia-Filled Chat About Battle of the Network Stars

Team “Troublemaker”: Julie Benz, John Barrowman, Vivica A. Fox, Catherine Bach, Paul Johansson. Photo: Kelsey McNeal/ABC

Battle of the Network Stars, the competition series that once pitted TV’s biggest stars against each other in a battle for athletic-actor supremacy, returns to the airwaves Thursday via reboot on ABC. In anticipation of this Olympian television event, three of Vulture’s more ’70s- and ’80s-nostalgic writers — Josef Adalian, Jen Chaney, and Maria Elena Fernandez — got together to discuss what made the original so great and whether the new one can recapture its magic. Here’s a transcript of that conversation, complete with videos of great moments in Battle of the Network Stars history.

Jen Chaney: Joe, Maria, the day we always hoped would come has finally arrived: Battle of the Network Stars is returning to TV. As children of the ’70s and ’80s, I think all of us loved this competition series when we were growing up, in large part because we were getting to see our favorite TV stars in more candid situations, engaging in a competition that was real and unscripted. In a pre-reality-show era, that was really different and exciting — which is why it’s so strange that it’s taken so long for it to come back. I’m also, admittedly, a little nervous about the return because I suspect the new Battle will feel a lot more scripted and self-conscious than the old one did. What do you think?

Josef Adalian: I’m right there with you. I’m someone who’s been praying and publicly pontificating for a BOTNS reboot for at least a decade. It’s just so logical. As you noted, people love to see their favorite stars in unusual, unexpected situations. The show’s format is basically “Stars: They’re just like us — but on steroids.” In a world where celebrities are more cautious about their every public utterance, where even tweets can be decided by a committee of publicists and managers, the idea of big TV stars willing to step up in (semi)-real athletic competition just seems too perfect not to try.

Maria Elena Fernandez: There’s no question it was event television back then. It was something to be super excited about, almost like the Olympics with your favorite faces. It did feel very natural and off the cuff and it was always an unexpected gift when you saw how athletic some of these actors were. Everything about it was gold. I mean, Howard Cosell at the height of his career as the voice of ABC Sports was the commentator.

JC: The whole thing was packaged to be taken seriously as sport, even if some of the events, like the dunk tank, did not involve “real” athleticism.

MEF: Will it have the same sizzle? I don’t know. We are not going to see the biggest stars of television competing on the new show. The first episode had Farrah Fawcett and Lynda Carter on the same team!

JA: Right, this is my worry and sadness. ABC clearly wasn’t able to convince even a bunch of its own stars to take this risk.

JC: For people who don’t know, the way it’s going to work in the new version is that TV stars both old and new, from a variety of networks, will compete against each other in teams based on genre. So for example, “sitcom stars” versus “TV kids” is one matchup. That will feel different from watching the key stars on what were then the only three major networks duke it out against each other.

JA: Yet here’s my hope for the new show. Perhaps by recruiting celebrities not quite at the peak of their fame, it will result in a show where the celebs are as fearless as those in the ’70s and ’80s. They don’t have to worry about losing that new Netflix series deal, so why not ham it up in the dunk tank?

MEF: I’m most excited about the old contestants who are returning, I have to admit.

JA: Yes! And they got about two dozen to come back. Jimmie “J.J.” Walker! Multiple Love Boat alums! But, sadly, no Gabe Kaplan. Why, Gabe, why?

JC:  Speaking of which, perhaps it’s time to bring out what we all came here for: hard-core nostalgia! It’s difficult to understand what made the original Battle of the Network Stars so great unless you look at old YouTube clips. (It also helps if you’re old and remember the ’70s and ’80s, but I digress.) Maria, I know you have a classic clip you’d like to share.

MEF: Even the kids will like this one. A very cocky Caitlyn Jenner — then still known as Bruce — getting dunked by Cosell himself. [Note: The dunking portion begins at the 8:50 mark.]

JA: That clip is such a beautiful thing. Let’s break down what makes it great.

JC: Well, for starters, Howard Cosell’s turtleneck. It’s the mark of a true athlete.

MEF: Not only does Howard have a turtleneck, he’s got a jacket over it and he doesn’t even bother to take any of it off. Not necessary. He’s got this.

JA: Obviously, there’s the fun of seeing two sports legends trash-talking each other, egging each other on. But when Jenner goes down, the reaction of the celebrity crowd is just a classic TV lover’s dream come true. They all stand and applaud Howard. Gabe Kaplan! Hal Linden!

JC: Also — and this will come up in other clips — the fact that Robert Conrad is smoking. There was so much smoking on the sidelines in Battle of the Network Stars, it’s a wonder anyone could finish their relays. It’s like watching the cast of Mad Men try to tackle an obstacle course. (Man, how great would it be for the Mad Men cast to be on Battle of the Network Stars? Please, someone make this happen.)

JA: The secondhand smoke from the ’70s was so strong, I can still smell it.

JC: Now, here’s a clip that I consider to be the ultimate Battle of the Network Stars moment.

JA:  It better involve Gabe Kaplan, Jen.

JC: Oh, that is a given. He is very much involved. This is the famous lodging of a complaint in the running relay race and involves heated arguments between Telly Savalas — who is smoking, OBVIOUSLY — Robert Conrad, and Gabe Kaplan. Let’s go to the videotape, which is magic and deserves everyone’s full attention.

JC: There are so many things I love in this clip. Penny Marshall making a snide face at Telly Savalas when he’s still bitching about the outcome of the race.

MEF: “What is all the hullabaloo?”

JA: “I’m German and I want to kill them both!”

JC:  I mean, the racist comments are just one of the things that make this so painfully ’70s.

MEF: Everyone is there in this clip!

JC: Even Ron Howard, director of the Han Solo movie!

JA: In the words of Robert Hegyes, “The tapes don’t lie, Howard. The tapes don’t lie.”

JC: This killer quote from Cosell: “Farrah, baby, I’m not in charge of the rules committee.” It’s so damn sexist, like much of this show was. And yet, I still plan to use that quote anytime someone asks me to fix something that is out of my control: “Farrah, baby, I’m not in charge of the rules committee.”

MEF: Cosell introduced Jane Seymour as “so pretty.”

JC: So often on this show, they point out the women are at a disadvantage during the competition. As if: “Of course she is going to fail.”

JA: The producer of the reboot, Andrew Glassman, told me BOTNS was the original reality event TV and he’s right. This fight? It could totally happen on Survivor, Big Brother, or The Real World. It’s just 100 times better because we know and actually love these very famous celebs.

MEF: It’s crazy how wrapped up I got into that again. Please be that good, new show.

JA: This clip also offers a cautionary tale for the new show, I think. Notice how sparingly produced the whole kerfuffle is. Save for the ’70s porn music used to score the  instant replay, the producers just let the drama play out. No tense “battle” music. No annoying narrator or host trying to amp up the drama. Just real celebs getting real about a fake Olympics.

That’s one of the biggest differences between TV today and TV then: The producers trusted their audiences. They didn’t feel actual drama (or comedic drama, in this case) needed extra embellishment. Today’s producers might scream, “Ugh, this is so boring!” And I’ll admit, we watch TV differently now. We’re distracted more often. We have more options. Sometimes, watching an old BOTNS can get … boring. It can move too slowly. But if the producers of the reboot overdo things, if they make it like an episode of Dancing With the Stars? Not good, Bob (Conrad). Not good.

JC: I also think we watch reality-competition shows much more critically than we did then because reality TV has trained us to spot its tropes and to notice when something seems “real” or real. I mean, I was a kid during the original BOTNS, so perhaps I was naïve. But I never thought they were faking anything and I never watched it cynically.

MEF: I thought about this while I watched this clip of Kristy McNichol.

MEF: Go to the 1:40 mark. It’s sooooo sentimental! It goes to your point, Joe, there’s no way this could work in this age.

JC: And yet, this is totally how the Olympics are still packaged. And audiences eat that stuff up.

MEF: First of all, people need to understand that Kristy was the princess of ABC at that time.

JA: Second of all, I totally want to do a binge watch of Family. I’ve only seen clips. It makes This Is Us look dark and cynical.

JC: Have you gotten to the obstacle course portion with Melissa Gilbert and Billy Crystal? McNichol totally kicks Half-Pint’s ass.

MEF: I feel like Kristy was this show’s Olympian.

JA: A classic! I believe that’s part of Dave Holmes’s BOTNS opus from a few years back. We should pause to remember Dave’s pioneering work in BOTNS-ology.

JC: As always, Dave Holmes gets it. “But eventually the heatstroke, cocaine, and hubris will combine and they will go to the dark place, the place where each one is out for him or herself, the place where they must win at any cost.”  This line single-handedly summarizes what made Battle of the Network Stars so great.

JA: Kristy’s game face is FIERCE. She did not come to play. She came to win. And then we get to Valerie Bertinelli! I think the producers of the new show missed a chance to have a team of old and new One Day at a Time stars. Maybe season two … if we get there.

MEF: I would kill to see Rita Moreno in the dunk tank. Oh, and excuse me, we have not discussed the tug-of-war. They’re going to have tug-of-war in the new show, right? I mean, they have to.

JA: It’s an instant delete-from-the-DVR if they don’t.

JC: Here’s a classic tug-of-war battle, presented in two parts and anchored for CBS by Pernell Roberts of Trapper John, M.D. and for NBC by Daniel J. Travanti.

MEF: Tom Wopat!

JC: Cosell calls Pernell Roberts “a rock of Gibraltar.”

JA: “Look at Debbie Allen: So small, so fragile.” Ah, Howard’s casual sexism never disappoints.

MEF: I’m sorry, Howard, but Debbie Allen is an ATHLETE.

JC: The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the loud din of sexism: Battle of the Network Stars had it all.

JA: I want to talk about some things that make me hopeful for the new version. Here’s one good thing the producers did with this reboot: They’re having ESPN anchors host the show. People who have real sports chops. Howard can’t be replaced, of course. He was legend (albeit a sexist one). But maybe, just maybe, the combination of four legit sports correspondents will give the new effort the gravitas it needs. They just need to hit that right combo of serious and lighthearted.

JC: I also think it is smart, even if it was a move made out of necessity, to have classic and current stars in the mix. They know this is a nostalgia play for people like us, so we’ll want to see some of the people we remember from earlier eras, as well as more current competitors. All I know is, I look forward to seeing Bronson Pinchot show us what he’s made of. And that goes double for Kim Fields and Lisa Whelchel.

JA: What’s everyone’s biggest fear about the reboot?

MEF: That it will be boring.

JC: That it feels too curated and lacks spontaneity. That it isn’t fun.

JA: Yes, that it will be too produced, too fast-paced, too staged. Of course, that could be boring. Reports from the set are that folks had a blast. The key is making sure that it translates to the screen. It’s going to be difficult to match our memories, but I give ABC total credit for at least trying.

MEF: Let’s hope the new show brings that energy back. America could use a fun summer distraction.

JA: Now when is someone going to reboot Scooby’s All-Star Laff-a-Lympics?

JC: Give it time, Joe. Give it time.

A Nostalgia-Filled Chat About Battle of the Network Stars