When Network Stars Went to Battle

Background: iStock, L-R: Keystone Colour/Getty Images, Tony Duffy /Allsport, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Background: iStock, L-R: Keystone Colour/Getty Images, Tony Duffy /Allsport, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The 1976 Olympic Games, held in Montreal over a two-week period in July, represented the absolute pinnacle of athletic competition. Caitlyn (then Bruce) Jenner proved to be the most impressive decathlete in the world; at 14, Romanian Nadia Comaneci earned a perfect 10 score on the uneven bars.

Just three months later, Jenner would be present—this time as an eyewitness—to a multi-discipline competition that was no less compelling, despite the fact that some of its participants were prone to smoking between events. That was the year ABC broadcast the inaugural edition of Battle of the Network Stars, a competition pitting small-screen talent from the three major networks against one another in relay races, kayaking, swimming, golf, and tug of war.

At any given time during the show’s semi-annual airings, viewers could expect to see Gabe Kaplan, Tony Danza, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, O.J. Simpson, Billy Crystal, Michael J. Fox, Ron Howard, Tom Selleck, Scott Baio, and other TV Guide cover subjects making very earnest attempts to outdo one another. While ABC’s motivation was clearly ratings, and viewers were compelled by both male and female stars sporting gym shorts, the participants were recruited based on a dual reward tier: Their egos would be challenged, and they could win a lot of money.

Battle’s origins can be traced back to the NBA—specifically, a lack of it. In the mid-1970s, ABC had lost the rights to broadcast National Basketball Association games to CBS, creating a hole in the network's Sunday afternoon programming schedule. An ABC executive named Dick Button proposed a show called Superstars, where well-known athletes would step outside of their comfort zones and try out a new sport.

ABC was elated when Superstars wound up outdrawing CBS’s NBA games in the ratings. The logical progression, according to former ABC executive Don Ohlmeyer, was to use the Superstars format and take advantage of the deep bench of attractive primetime stars appearing on television at the time. In an unlikely bit of collusion, ABC convinced both CBS and NBC to allow their contracted talent to appear on Battle of the Network Stars on the premise that it would amount to free advertising during a rival channel’s airtime.

The three network squads were a who’s-who of ‘70s fame. For ABC, team captain Gabe Kaplan (Welcome Back Kotter) led a charge that included Lynda Carter, Ron Howard, and Penny Marshall; NBC’s crew was comprised of captain Robert Conrad, Tim Matheson, Melissa Sue Anderson, and Ben Murphy; CBS appointed Telly Savalas to manage Lee Meriwether, Jimmie Walker, and Mackenzie Phillips.

Conrad would later recall that recruiting for the shows was easy, since “actors have tremendous egos” and took the competition seriously. An additional incentive was the fact that each member of the winning team would receive $20,000. (The amount would eventually go up to $40,000 as the series wound down in the 1980s.)

Despite the overall sheen of ironic detachment from commentator Howard Cosell, former Wild, Wild West star Conrad was fiercely competitive. Onetime contestant Melissa Gilbert recalled that Conrad once sent a kayak instructor and kayak to her house so she could practice for the event in her pool. During a relay race, when judges determined NBC had committed a foul, Conrad angrily demanded to face team captain Kaplan in a “run-off” to determine a winner. (Savalas, whose CBS team was destined for third place regardless, puffed on a cigarette and looked on with amusement.) Kaplan overcame an early deficit to surpass Conrad in a 100-meter foot race.

To Ohlmeyer, Conrad’s genuine outrage at the accusation of a foul helped set the tone for the specials, which didn’t appear to soften the events for the amateur competitors. Bikes were mounted without helmets or knee pads; Gilbert recalled seeing broken bones, sprained ankles, and contestants passing out from the heat; Falcon Crest star Lorenzo Lamas once took a spill off a cliff during a bike race, and landed in a ditch.

Several competitors had athletic backgrounds. Tony Danza was a former professional boxer; Mark Harmon was a quarterback at UCLA; Kurt Russell played minor league baseball. But an athletic background was no prerequisite: ABC was under no delusion about why many viewers were tuning in. Men like Lamas and Tom Selleck were of significant interest to audiences once they had disposed of their shirts, while the sight of a jogging Carter or Fawcett-Majors appealed to another demographic. “Giggly, jiggly starlets” is how Detroit Free Press columnist Mike Duffy described the action of the 1980 special, chiding producers for the shamelessness of dangling Dallas star Charlene Tilton over a dunk tank.

With a rotating cast, Battle taped most of its events at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, airing twice a year through 1985. Devoted viewers would eventually be treated to the surreal spectacle of Tony Randall or William Shatner leading a sports team or David Letterman paddling shirtless in a kayak while Dick Van Dyke commentated the action. During one climactic tug of war, Conrad recalled that the teams spent over 14 minutes locked in a stalemate.

It seemed viewers would never tire of such high drama, but Battle's novelty eventually wore thin. The 1985 season was its last, with brief revivals attempted in 1988 and 2003. More recently, ABC announced a reboot scheduled for June 2017 that will feature many of the show's previous participants: Lorenzo Lamas, Erik Estrada, Jimmie Walker, and Mackenzie Phillips will all be there. It might be diverting and it might not, but the sight of a celebratory Lynda Carter kissing Gabe Kaplan while Telly Savalas moodily drags on his cigarette is a scene unlikely to ever be matched.

Spit Take: The Story of Big League Chew

Amazon
Amazon

Rob Nelson watched the kid’s ritual with curiosity. It was the mid-1970s, and he and the kid were in Civic Stadium in Portland, Oregon, both working in the service of the Portland Mavericks, a rogue baseball team operating outside the purview of Major League Baseball. Nelson was a fledging player who sometimes got on the field but mostly stuck to selling tickets and coaching youth baseball camps. The kid, Todd Field, was the batboy. And what Field was doing fascinated Nelson.

Field, who couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12, took a Redman chewing tobacco pouch from his pocket, scooped out of a bunch of gunk, and stuffed it between his cheeks and gumline. Then he’d let the black goo dribble down his chin or hock it in the dirt.

Chewing tobacco was a common sight among the athletes, but Nelson hadn’t seen many kids take up the habit so early. He approached Field and asked if he was dipping, the common parlance for stuffing tobacco in one’s cheek pockets.

Field hocked another glob of brown discharge at the ground. He showed Nelson the tobacco tin, which was full of black licorice. Fields had minced it up so that he could replicate the muddy color of the real thing.

The exchange planted a seed in Nelson's brain. As a kid, he had done something vaguely similar, stuffing his mouth with bubblegum to resemble his idol, Chicago White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox. What if, he wondered, kids could emulate their heroes without the health consequences or parental scorn that accompanied real tobacco?

The package for Big League Chew shredded bubble gum is pictured
Amazon

Not long after, Nelson found himself in the team’s dugout with Jim Bouton, a onetime New York Yankee who had been ostracized for writing a tell-all memoir, Ball Four. Nelson shared his idea for a novelty faux-tobacco product with Bouton, but with something of a twist: Instead of licorice, he would use shredded bubblegum. He might, he said, call it Maverick Chew, or All-Star Chew.

Bouton was intrigued. As the two watched the Mavericks players jog around the field and dip real tobacco (neither man had ever taken up the habit) they agreed it would be an idea worth pursuing. Nelson would develop the product and Bouton would try to get it distributed. Bouton would also be the sole investor, sinking $10,000 into Nelson’s idea.

The Mavericks disbanded in 1977, but the partnership between Nelson and Bouton endured. Nelson, who worked for a pitching machine company, visited Bouton after the pitcher signed with the Atlanta Braves in 1978, and the two conspired further on Nelson’s shredded gum idea. Nelson purchased an at-home gum-making kit that he saw an ad for in the pages of People magazine and got to work producing a batch of the stuff in the kitchen of Field’s parents. Hoping to mimic the tar-like color of Field’s concoction, Nelson used brown food coloring, maple extract, and root beer extract in the gum. The result was predictably terrible.

Despite a lack of a viable prototype gum, Bouton did his part by pitching the idea to several baseball-affiliated companies. (The former Yankee put his own likeness on the mock-up pouch.) Topps and Fleer, which produced bubblegum cards, politely rejected him. He eventually ended up at Amurol, a subsidiary of the Wrigley Company, one of the largest chewing gum conglomerates in the world. In a coincidence, Amurol engineer Ron Ream had been working on a shredded-gum project for several years. Rather than brush Bouton off, the company embraced the idea of a gum that would be sold in a pouch and was a play on kid-friendly chewing tobacco. They even liked the name Nelson had settled on: Big League Chew.

Ream had successfully developed a formula that solved the problem of the tiny ribbons of gum, using enough glycerin to make sure it wouldn’t stick together and become a useless clump in the package. Amurol, however, didn’t take to Nelson’s other big idea, which was to make the gum brown. While the chewing tobacco homage was obvious, they didn’t want to completely replicate the experience. The gum would remain pink.

In 1980, Amurol conducted a sample rollout at a 7-Eleven store in Naperville, Illinois. When executives came back from lunch, the 2.1-ounce pouches had sold out.

That first year, Big League Chew rang up $18 million in sales, capturing 8 percent of the bubblegum market. Amurol’s other products all together hadn’t totaled more than $8 million. (Nelson and Bouton received a percentage of sales.)

Nelson’s hunch had been correct: Kids loved the facsimile chew, which sold for between 59 and 79 cents a pack. Candy distributors in Orlando reported selling 25,000 pouches a week. Copycat products like Chaw came and went. Little Leaguers and amateur ballplayers could take out as much gum as they wanted and stuff the rest in their pockets. But the association with tobacco, which wasn’t meant to be taken literally, upset some parents. They feared Big League Chew could become a "gateway" gum—bubblegum one day, tobacco and oral cancer the next.

Nelson and Amurol took the criticism in stride. Nelson was often quoted as saying he personally detested chewing tobacco and considered this a solution to, not the cause of, a tobacco habit. A California bill that would have banned the gum, candy cigarettes, and other products meant to resemble tobacco died in the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee in 1992. Kids continued to dribble grape, strawberry, and other fruit-flavored gum on their shirts. Amurol experimented with gum branded with Popeye’s likeness, colored green and meant to resemble spinach. It did not enjoy the same success.

Nelson bought out Bouton’s interest in Big League Chew in 2000 and has remained with the brand ever since, including a move from Wrigley—which was sold to Mars Inc. in 2008 for $23 billion—to Ford Gum in 2010. Sales have hovered around $10 to $13 million annually and there have been no confirmed reports of children being indoctrinated into a chewing tobacco habit as a result.

In February 2019, the package depicted its first female player. In the past, it has featured a variety of artwork and the likenesses of several retired players. In 2013, two active players—Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies (now with the Chicago Cubs)—were pictured. But despite its name, Big League Chew has never had any formal affiliation with Major League Baseball. The MLB has instead maintained relationships with Bazooka and Double Bubble.

The lack of any official MLB endorsement hasn’t hurt. At last count, more than 800 million pouches of Big League Chew have been sold.

Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

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