Forget, if you will, the Olympic Games, Monday Night Football, championship fights…,” began host Howard Cosell. And the 39 million people who tuned in to ABC’s Battle of the Network Stars on Nov. 13, 1976, quickly did—after getting a gander at such bizarre sights as Penny Marshall belly flopping into a swim relay, and Adrienne Barbeau stumbling into the obstacle course’s water pit. Clearly, Battle was like no sports program that had gone before.
Strike that: In many ways, Battle resembled ABC’s The Superstars, which pitted pro athletes against each other in competitions. While watching a taping of The Celebrity Superstars in early 1976, Telly Savalas told producer Don Ohlmeyer he should devise a format that allowed less-agile celebs, like Savalas, to compete. Soon the Battle was joined. Savalas was rewarded with captaincy of the CBS team, and faced off against Welcome Back, Kotter’s Gabe Kaplan, who led ABC’s team, and Baa, Baa Black Sheep’s Robert Conrad, NBC’s leader.
Over 17 million households clicked on that first contest to watch prime-time champs like Ron Howard, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, and Loretta Swit square off in nine events at Pepperdine University’s Malibu campus. Cosell revved up the affair with his hyperbolic descriptions (on Jimmie Walker approaching the dunk tank: ”Coming up, the angular one, throwing with an almost liquid grace…”). Adding to the tension was a $20,000 prize for each of the members of the winning team. ”I would have made it for nothing,” says Conrad. ”But when they said the winner gets 20 Gs, I said, ‘Whoa, yeah, baby!”’
The competition soon grew cutthroat. To settle one relay-race kerfuffle, Conrad challenged Kaplan to a 110-yard dash. ”Farrah Fawcett and Lynda Carter were saying ‘You can’t beat him!”’ remembers Kaplan. ”But I was always the fastest Jew in my neighborhood, so I knew I’d win.” He did, and ABC captured the first Battle crown. ”I lived with it for years,” says Conrad. ”People went, ‘Hey, Gabe Kaplan and you gonna race?”’
ABC made Battle a (mostly) biannual event, with 18 more matches until 1988. Recently, sports agency IMG (which co-owns the rights to the program) has unsuccessfully tried to resurrect the format. Unfortunately, stars are no longer as willing to belly flop on national TV. ”People today are more protective of their image,” says Ohlmeyer. In 1976, ”we hired a photographer to come. Today, there’d be five days of post-analysis on everything from Entertainment Tonight to Access Hollywood.”