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.

When Bloodthirsty Batman Readers Voted to Kill Off Robin

DC Comics
DC Comics

Denny O’Neil kept thinking about Larry the Lobster. O’Neil, who served as the group editor of the Batman family of comic book titles for DC Comics in the 1980s, was at a writer’s retreat in upstate New York in 1988 when he and other staffers began discussing the best way to address growing reader dissent with the current incarnation of Robin. Batman’s newest sidekick—a street urchin named Jason Todd—was sullen and moody, a sharp contrast to the gleeful energy of former ward Dick Grayson. Fans called him whiny and petulant. Measures needed to be taken.

During the conversation, O’Neil suddenly remembered a 1982 skit from Saturday Night Live in which cast member Eddie Murphy threatened to boil a lobster named Larry on air unless viewers phoned in and begged for clemency. Or, Murphy told them, they could dial a separate 900 number to cast a vote for his death. The following week, Murphy announced the lobster had earned a stay of execution. He ate it anyway.

O’Neil wondered if the same gimmick could be applied to comics. If fans hated Robin so much, O’Neil thought, then perhaps they should feel culpable for killing him.

 

Death in comics was nothing new. Saddled with decades of continuity and running the risk of repeating themselves, comics writers often turn to tragedy to shake up the status quo. Comic book covers of the 1950s—the clickbait of their time—often hinted at a demise inside, though it was usually a case of misdirection. In 1973, Marvel allowed Spider-Man’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, to plummet to her death during a scuffle with the Green Goblin. (In the next issue, the Goblin, a.k.a. Norman Osborn, met his maker.) In the 1980s, one iteration of Captain Marvel succumbed to that most human of weaknesses: cancer.

DC had enlisted the Grim Reaper, too, killing off the Flash and Supergirl during their 1986 Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover that attempted to sort out the publisher’s confusing timelines.

It was the clean slate of Crisis on Infinite Earths that allowed O’Neil to improve upon Jason Todd’s origin story. Originally introduced in Batman #357 (1983) as a trapeze artist whose parents fell to their death, Todd’s background was a virtual carbon copy of Dick Grayson’s, who had first appeared as Robin back in 1940. After more than 40 years as the Dark Knight's sidekick, Grayson came into his own and adopted the mantle of Nightwing, another player in the DC Universe. Which left a spot open for a new Robin. Enter Todd who, under O'Neil's supervision, was first discovered trying to liberate a wheel from the Batmobile. Impressed with the kid’s courage, Batman enlisted him to bust a child crime ring. After a bit of superhero training, he became an official costumed sidekick. 

Batman holds an injured Robin in a DC Comics illustration by Jim Aparo
DC Comics

Jim Starlin, who had recently come on board as writer for the main Batman title—and who had killed off Captain Marvel for Marvel—had never particularly liked any version of Robin; he preferred to depict Batman as a troubled loner. While Starlin had advocated for Robin’s demise as far back as 1984, this latest iteration was especially grating to him, as Todd often ignored orders and brooded incessantly. When DC floated the idea of having one of their characters contract HIV, it was Starlin who repeatedly suggested giving Robin the virus.

The publisher didn’t go for that, but O’Neil’s idea to have readers cast their own votes gained momentum within the company. Starlin needed no convincing and wove a four-issue plot, “Death in the Family,” in which Todd discovers his biological mother is alive and working in Ethiopia. He travels to see her, but realizes she has been recruited by the Joker to sell stolen medical supplies. Todd's only choice is to confront the iconic villain—a showdown that sees him beaten nearly to death with a crowbar and left to die in an explosion.

An ad at the conclusion of the issue breathlessly told readers that Robin’s ultimate fate was in their hands. “Robin will die because the Joker wants revenge, but you can prevent it with a telephone call,” it read. Dialing one 900 number cast a vote for his survival; dialing another would help seal his doom. Each call cost 50 cents.

The lines were only open for a 36-hour period on September 16 and 17, 1988. Approximately 10,614 calls were received. Of those, 5271 backed a second chance, while 5343 threw dirt on Todd’s face. Robin would die, executed by a margin of just 72 votes—though that may not have represented 72 people. At least one anti-Robin activist admitted to calling in four times to cement the sidekick's death.

In Batman #428, which hit stands that October, the Dark Knight finds a bloodied Todd in the rubble. (Two endings had been prepared by Starlin and artist Jim Aparo; the winning conclusion was the one rushed to press.) To make matters worse, Batman discovers that the Joker has been named an ambassador to the United Nations by the Ayatollah Khomeini and now has diplomatic immunity.

Starlin got his wish. So did the majority of fans. But DC wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

 

With the mainstream media not quite hip to the fact that death is often not a permanent condition in comics, hundreds of headlines that fall ran with the news that Batman’s perennial sidekick had perished. “Holy Hearse, Batman!” read the Arizona Daily Star. Press calls flooded into DC’s offices. O’Neil gave interviews for three days straight, and was eventually cut off by a concerned DC public relations employee who feared that all the attention was reflecting poorly on the company.

For most of the public, the “Robin’s Dead” notices were scanned without much regard for which Robin died—it was the aloof Todd who had met his maker, not the beloved Dick Grayson. DC’s marketing arm was jolted, as thousands of lunchboxes, shirts, and toys were now doubling as memorials for Batman's deceased sidekick. (For better or worse, Robin was not a part of Tim Burton’s Batman, which was set to arrive in theaters just seven months later.) Starlin later said, perhaps only half-jokingly, that O’Neil took credit for the idea until executives grew annoyed, at which point Starlin became the man who killed the Boy Wonder.

Batman stands in front of the Bat symbol in this book collection illustration
iStock.com/neilkendall

Batman #428 and the other connected issues sold out, with the issues going for $20 to $40 apiece in the collector’s aftermarket. DC would later use the death trope to even greater effect with their 1993 “Death of Superman” saga, selling millions of copies, some of them bagged with a black armband for proper mourning.

Superman returned, of course. So did Todd. He was later revealed as the Red Hood, a Batman nemesis who is slated to appear on the DC Universe streaming series Titans alongside original Robin Dick Grayson. Still, Todd's death seemed to teach O’Neil a lesson about the enduring appeal of comic mythology and the responsibility that goes along with it.

“It changed my mind about what I did for a living,” O'Neil said. “I realized that, no, I am in charge of post-modern folklore. These characters have been around so long and so ubiquitously that they are our modern equivalent of Paul Bunyan and mythic figures of earlier ages.”

Just because it was O'Neil's idea to let fans decide Robin's fate doesn't mean he was in favor of his demise. During the brief window the phone lines were open, O’Neil picked up his phone. He dialed the 900 number in support of saving him.

The Computer Error That Led to a Country Declaring War on Pepsi

iStock
iStock

On May 25, 1992, the Channel 2 News program in Manila, Philippines aired a segment that had been running since February of that year. Each night, the station alerted viewers to the day’s winning number in Pepsi’s Number Fever promotion. Buying a specially marked Pepsi product allowed consumers to match the number underneath the bottle cap to the announcements. While most prizes were just 100 pesos (roughly $5 in today’s U.S. currency), there was an opportunity to win the grand prize of one million pesos, or the equivalent of $37,000 to $40,000.

The Philippines was a country struggling with a modest economy and widespread poverty, and that grand prize was perceived as a life-changing amount of money. So when 349, that night's winning number, flashed on screen that night, tens of thousands of Filipinos couldn’t believe their luck. The number was associated with the largest prize in the sweepstakes. The next morning, Pepsi plants in Manila were overrun by people toting their 349-emblazoned bottle caps and looking for the promised reward.

There wasn’t one.

Only two of the grand prizes were supposed to have been doled out. Instead, Pepsi had somehow manufactured 800,000 caps with the winning number. Consumers were told the company had made an error and were turned away in droves. Barbed wire was erected around the plants. Riots, boycotts, and picketing ensued. Homemade bombs were launched at bottling factories. In the words of one Pepsi executive, “we had death threats for breakfast.”

The giveaway was intended to boost sales. Instead, Pepsi executives were not only bleeding market share—they were suddenly in fear for their lives.

 

As the perennial number two in the cola industry, Pepsi had engaged in several promotional attempts over the years to compete with rival Coca-Cola. In 1989, they marketed Pepsi A.M. as an alternative to coffee. (It had 28 percent more caffeine than regular Pepsi.) The product didn’t catch on, nor did the company’s expensive attempt to recruit pop star Madonna that same year. Stung by controversy over her religious-themed “Like a Prayer” video, the company pulled advertising featuring the singer despite having paid her $5 million for the endorsement.

Their Number Fever campaign didn’t appear to carry the same risks. Pepsi saw only upside: In the Philippines, then the world's 12th largest market for soft drinks, the company was a distant second to Coca-Cola. The promise of winning anything from a modest amount of money to 1 million pesos was enough to spike sales 40 percent, capturing 26 percent of the country’s market share. From February to May, 51,000 people had won 100 pesos, while 17 had captured the grand prize.

To determine winning numbers, Pepsi recruited D.G. Consultores, a marketing firm based in Mexico. The numbers were generated via computer, then secured in a safe deposit box in Manila. From there, the list would be used to “seed” bottle caps in the bottling plants. Each night, the company would announce the day’s winning number on television.

A Pepsi bottlecap is pictured against a blue background
iStock

Somehow, that system went awry. A computer glitch told bottlers to print 800,000 caps with the 349 designation, although all of them except for two lacked a special security code that proved the cap was authentic. That detail was irrelevant to consumers, who saw that they had the number and proceeded to demand the prize they felt was owed to them—a number that eventually grew to 486,170 people. (Though more caps were printed, not everyone noticed they held a “winning” number.)

Quickly, Pepsi executives in the Philippines and stateside convened for an emergency meeting at 3 a.m. on how to proceed. Economically, honoring the perceived value of all of the caps was virtually impossible to justify—it would’ve cost the company tens of billions of dollars. Instead, they opted to declare it a computer error and offered $18 to $20 to cap holders as a “goodwill gesture.” What was originally earmarked to be a promotion with $2 million in total prizes ballooned to $10 million.

While some accepted the prize, most consumers were livid. Pepsi, they argued, had raised the hope of lessening their financial burdens. They didn’t care about a clerical mistake. Pepsi was a massive conglomerate and should accept fault.

The company disagreed, and that's when the trouble began.

 

Pepsi delivery trucks became an early and frequent casualty of the war on the soft drink manufacturer. Between 32 and 37 trucks were overturned, burned, stoned, or otherwise vandalized by protestors, many of whom took to the streets with signs and bullhorns to voice their displeasure over the company's wrongdoing. Corporate Pepsi offices were targeted by Molotov cocktails, makeshift explosives that crashed into windows and front lawns. One homemade grenade intended for a truck kept rolling and landed near a schoolteacher, killing her and a 5-year-old student and wounding six others.

Fretful Pepsi executives hired bodyguards, armed passengers in delivery trucks, and pulled expatriates from the country, leaving just a handful—including one with experience in Beirut—to face the angry mobs, which were quickly becoming organized. Several spun off into factions, including Coalition 349, which took a systematic approach to shaming Pepsi into paying up. After electing a leader, Vicente del Fierro Jr., they printed anti-Pepsi tracts and called for product boycotts. Paciencia Salem, a then-64-year-old protestor whose husband died of heart failure while marching in opposition, declared that the company would never see relief.

“Even if I die here, my ghost will come to fight Pepsi,” she said. “It is their mistake. Not our mistake. And now they won’t pay. That’s why we are fighting.”

Protestors voice anti-Pepsi sentiment during a rally in Manila
Romeo Gacad, AFP/Getty Images

Though Pepsi was reticent to respond to these impassioned revolts, calling it “extortion,” they were compelled to answer questions from the Philippines government. Senator Gloria Macapagal Arroyo called the mistake “negligent,” while thousands of civil and criminal complaints flooded state prosecutor offices. A crop of “speculators” even offered to buy the caps for $15, betting that the company might one day relent and agree to pay the full prize amount.

The tumult stretched well into 1993, at which point a sensational new twist captured local headlines. In December of that year, a police officer filed a report alleging that the bombings and riots were not the result of protestors. They were, he insisted, deliberate acts of self-sabotage by Pepsi against itself.

The accusation, which was reported in the Chicago Tribune, came from Artemio Sacaguing, chief of the organized crime division of the country’s National Bureau of Investigation. In his brief, Sacaguing reported to Manila prosecutors that a man had confessed to being a Pepsi security guard and knew of three mercenaries who were hired by the company to damage their property. In doing so, Sacaguing claimed, they could portray the anti-Pepsi groups as being violent and labeled as terrorists, harming their position in court.

Almost immediately, Sacaguing’s superiors dismissed his accusations and stated that the official’s report had already been discredited. A Pepsi lawyer refuted the allegation; Senator Macapagal Arroyo floated a slightly more plausible theory. Rival bottlers, she said, were acting out in order to weaken Pepsi’s grip on the market.

 

Slowly, Pepsi’s black eye in Manila began to fade. Most of the civil suits (689) and criminal complaints (5200) were tossed out of court. Sensing that the company had more determination to remain in the country than protestors had the time or energy to continue marching, the anti-Pepsi sentiment began to dim. By 1994, their market share had rebounded from a low of 17 percent post-scandal to 21 percent. A 1.5 liter “mega bottle” was a brisk seller.

In 2006, a Philippines Supreme Court ruling closed the book on the outstanding court cases and potential liability, finding that Pepsi was not obligated to honor the sweepstakes payout due to the error. It was a prolonged, if satisfactory, conclusion to the controversy.

Soda companies continue to perpetuate giveaways as a method for raising awareness, though there’s always risk that consumers want to push the envelope. In 1996, Pepsi offered prizes for people who collected points based on product purchases. One ad facetiously offered a Harrier fighter jet to anyone who submitted 7 million points. John Leonard, a 21-year-old business major, decided to take the company up on their offer to buy points for $.10 each. After raising $700,000, he demanded his jet, but Pepsi declared the prize offering was just a joke. A court agreed, granting summary judgment to the soda company. In future airings of the ad, they increased the number of points needed from 7 million to 700 million.

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