A couple of weeks ago I was gifted with something I’d thought I’d wanted for years now. After being reminded a few years ago of the glory of Battle of the Network Stars – a series of specials that ran on ABC from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s where TV celebrities competed against one another in various athletic competitions in a combination of knee-high tube socks, track shorts, and shirts that cling tightly when wet – I questioned aloud, both privately and publicly, why we couldn’t have a new version of this in our lives now.
Can we really call the time we live in “Peak TV” without a modern-day version of the greatest idea in all of television.
ABC revived the concept this summer and I stumbled across it while on vacation at my mother-in-law’s house in Florida where the cable package was determined based on three factors – cost, HBO, and the presence of as many Home Shopping Channels as are allowable by law.
I was thrilled. Long stays at houses with no wi-fi and scant cable options are the perfect places to watch celebrity “athletic” competitions.
I’ve now watched two of the three that have aired and I find myself trying to answer the question of why this new version of this makes me sad while I watch it.
Here’s what I’ve come up with.
First, it’s not a “In my day, things were better. And also, Millennials” type of thing. This new version is objectively and objectionably worse.
What follows are all the problems this version has in comparison to the original and some suggestions for how those problems can be fixed.
Two teams, not three
In the original version there were three teams set in competition with one another. One for each of the networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS. This made a ton of sense. The battle was of the network stars and these were the only three networks.
In this version, there are two teams and they are thematically grouped. For example, a team of TV Lawyers faced off against a team of TV White House employees.
This second version is intrinsically worse. I get why they needed to come up with a different way to group the contestants, what with there being about 1000 networks, plus streaming platforms. But, these groupings are at best arbitrary, and at worst non-sensical. TV Lawyers have no reason to battle TV Whitehouse people. Lots of the TV Whitehouse people were also TV Lawyers, either because they were White House Counsel, or because they played lawyers on other shows. But aside from that, Lawyers and Whitehouse people are not naturally in conflict with one another. ABC, NBC, and CBS are in competition with one another outside the confines of this show.
Even if it doesn’t make sense for Lynda Carter to be battling Gary Burghoff in a relay race, you can pretend it does because they are fighting for the honor of their networks.
On top of that, the three team dynamic works much better. The three teams battled against each other, gaining points in each event. The top two teams went on to face off in the Tug-of-War finale. All the points mattered if you wanted to reach the end and not get eliminated.
Then the Tug-of-War mattered.
Now there’s a Tug-of-War, but both teams compete in it. It doesn’t feel like a climax to the event. It’s the same as all the other events.
Go back to three teams and get rid of the gimmicky groupings. How about Network v. Cable v. Streaming? These platforms, or distribution methods or whatever you want to call them are actively competing against each other for our attention and our entertainment dollars.
It still doesn’t make sense for Taylor Schilling to get in a dunk tank while Peter Dinklage throws baseballs at a target, but Netflix v. HBO is a real thing. Let’s use it.
This also solves the three team problem and gets us back to having a Tug-of-War that matters, dammit!
During the original run of the show, the three teams of celebrities faced off against each other in front of a crowd of spectators. In the background of every shot a crowd of on-lookers was cheering, shouting, making noise. It felt real, live, and fun.
Watching Game Kaplan blows Robert Conrad’s doors off on the track field in front of a raucous crowd is fun. Watching them do it by themselves is kind of sad.
Bring back the crowds! This thing needs energy, not seclusion. Mr. T is someone who should be in front of a crowd, not someone playing tennis in isolation. We need the TV stars playing to the crowd and having fun.
With a crowd – silly and joyful. Without a crowd – Sad and lonely.
10 total competitors v. 30
The original teams had 8-10 competitors each, depending on the season. This thing has two teams of five. When you put 30 people around a track with a crowd of spectators there’s so much activity happening, the competitors are interacting with each other, they’re cheering and being loud.
Eight people standing next to a pool with no crowd looks like nothing. It feels like nothing. It sounds like nothing. It’s nothing.
Obviously, three teams – more competitors. There are more TV shows currently streaming or airing right now than in the decade of BotNS original run combined. We can’t get 30 people to do this all at once?
And that’s another issue. It’s a totally different show if current TV starts are competing against each other than former TV stars competing against each other. The original show had in-their-prime Farrah Fawcett, Catherine Bach, Mr. T, Billy Crystal, Erin Grey, Scott Baio, Michael J. Fox, Lisa Bonet, Phillip Michael Thomas, and Heather Locklear among others. This version has present day Willie Ames.
Watching Charles In Charge Willie Ames fail at tennis is fun. Watching 57-year old Willie Ames fail at tennis is less fun.
Give me Pauley Perrette v. Evan Rachel Wood!
No Simon Says
In the original show they got all the competitors up at once while Lou Goldstein called out a fast-paced and funny game of Simon Says. The stars looked very silly, but also like they were having a legitimately good time.
Now, no Simon Says. In part, because I think Lou Goldstein is long dead, but also because Simon Says with 30 people is so much more fun than Simon Says with 10.
But the Simon Says issue is symbolic of a larger problem. In this current version, the stars don’t seem like they’re having this level of fun. There’s nobody messing with them like Lou Goldstein did.
Simon Says looked organic, chaotic, and fun. That cannot be said of anything happening in this version.
Ideally, 30 people playing Simon Says by a Catskill’s entertainer. Failing that, a big group game where the stars look silly, normal, flawed, and are busted on a bit.
The Cosell Problem
Howard Cosell provided the play-by-play for the original Battle and Cosell had the reputation and gravitas to provide an incredibly sincere voice to this most ridiculous of proceedings.
There may be no funnier sentence ever uttered on television than, “It seems controversy has beset Battle of the Network Stars.”
Cosell is presently no longer living and has been replaced by Mike Greenberg, who is doing his best, but he isn’t Cosell. No one is.
The gap between their ability to bring earnestness to the competition is made even wider by the fact that it’s not possible to tell for sure if Greenberg is even present while the competition is happening.
Cosell was down in the midst of the stars as they celebrated, argued, and insulted each other with racial slurs (Robert Conrad). It’s very possible that Greenberg is narrating the games after they’ve all been completed from a sound booth somewhere.
Greenberg needs to be down with the competitors, treating this competition as if it were life and death. He can’t seem like he finds any of this dumb, even though it’s incredibly dumb.
He’s never going to be able to go full Howard, but he can get closer.
Nothing About This Feels Organic
When you watch the old school version there are few things that feel very true.
First, it feels like the teams really, really want to win. Watch the way they celebrate, the way they complain, the way they argue and negotiate. They want to win, are excited when they do, and are upset when they lose.
Second, it feels live. It’s not. It’s pre-recorded and edited, but because of the frenetic activity during and between events, the energy of the crowd, and Cosell’s presence down with the teams, made it feel live. This version is edited so cleanly, cuts right to the start of a race, cuts away right at the end. It’s just too pristine to feel real.
It looks much more like Wipeout than Battle of the Network Stars.
Third, the interactions between competitors feel staged. There was a moment when Ronda Rousey is holding DeMarcus Ware (the team coaches who don’t seem to be doing anything at all) from behind while Catherine Bell for JAG pretends to punch him like a heavy bag. It looked like a producer walked up to the three of them and said, “guys, we need something kind of fun to throw in here. Ronda, can you hold him while Catherine pretends to pummel him? Ok. Action!”
Fourth and finally, the trash talk in this version feels very forced. I really believed that Erin Grey did not want to get dunked, and that Robert Conrad really thought Gabe Kaplan and Telly Savalas were just racial stereotypes (Jewish and Greek, respectively) and he wasn’t afraid to say it.
You wanna see some stars taking this seriously? Here
I’m not suggesting that we return to the casual racism of the 1970s, but I need to see that the competitors care about what they’re doing enough to get in each others’ faces in a way that is deeply out of proportion to the importance of winning an athletic competition between people who are not athletes.
The celebrations should be real, the editing should be looser, and the confrontations should uncomfortably real.
I also wouldn’t hate it if some of the stars would finish a relay race and then smoke a cigarette while talking to Greenberg.
Battle of the Network Stars is making me sad because it’s too small, too isolated, to sanitized, and too casual. For this show to be its best self, it needs to be presented like it’s deadly serious, even though we at home know that it’s the dumbest thing in the world.