The obstacle course of red, white and blue tires is the same, but the dunk tank is a bit more extreme as ABC wages a new Battle of the Network Stars starting Thursday, June 29 at 9/8c.
For the unfortunately uninitiated of you, gather ’round as I spin a yarn about the original intra-network “field day” competition that aired on ABC during the 1970s and ’80s, pitting the Alphabet network against CBS and NBC and… well, that was it, kids. PBS and the scrambled WHT channel didn’t field teams.
‘Twas an age long before Instagram, offering the rare opportunity to see your favorite TV stars in their civvies (in this case, high-cut gym shorts paired with tube socks). You relished the intense rivalry between team captains such as Gabe Kaplan (aka ABC’s “Mr. Kot-ter“), Robert Conrad (daring you to knock the battery off NBC’s shoulder) and Telly Savalas (heading up CBS), all whilst grumbling that Farrah didn’t get enough camera time. Each day of games culled the field to two teams, who then faced off in a Tug-of-War that left many a precious TV star’s hand red and calloused.
Now, the Battle is back on, but with some updates. The 20 teams of five (see photos) are now themed, and populated by TV stars both current and from days gone by — including many that vied in the original competitions. What else is new or familiar? TVLine invited executive producer Andrew Glassman to set the stage for the series of 10 face-offs.
TVLINE | You are my hero, man, bringing this back. Battle of the Network Stars was appointment television for Young Matt. I grew up with the original.
Me too! Everybody did. Even the current or emerging stars who are part of the cast also said they grew up with it, because their parents had watched it or they’d seen clips of Scott Baio doing it on YouTube… It’s one of those names or titles that evokes a lot of memories in all of us.
TVLINE | For starters, what’s the format here? Is it a bracket tournament or a series of head-to-heads?
It’s a series of head-to-heads, five-on-five, winner take all.
TVLINE | And what exactly does the winner take?
The winner takes a truly ornate, one-of-a-kind medal with the ABC logo on it. It has probably very little aftermarket value, other than the thrill of victory.
TVLINE | Or at least less aftermarket value than the Dancing With the Stars disco globe.
Yes, correct! [Laughs] It’s definitely in the vein of that. Though I will say, all kidding aside, that one of the things we found is that everyone showed up with a premium on winning. It started on the red carpet, where everyone had a very playful attitude. But once the whistle blows, playtime is over. Everyone does want to win, even though they’re not fighting for money. No one wants to be the person who drops the ball with one second left in the game. Everyone wants to be the hero that hits the walk-off home run. The essence of competition of amateur sports was really pleasantly surprising to see.
TVLINE | Do you have a “Robert Conrad” and “Gabe Kaplan” in the mix?
We did have Robert Conrad come back for half an hour, just to walk around and give us a history lesson, which I loved. But this time around it’s not about arguing line calls, and it’s not even about conflict. It’s just about positive energy and everyone giving their best. The athletic part of the competition broke down on two lines: people who were determined to set records and excel, and a second tier of competitors who just wanted to go home with no broken bones, no torn ligaments and no extended hospitalization.
TVLINE | I have to say, the cast as a whole impresses me. When this was first announced, I assumed/feared that we’d end up with a couple dozen Bachelor and Big Brother rejects — “Battle of the Also-Ran Reality-TV Stars!” Was it by design that you ended up with this half-retro, half-current mix of actors?
I really appreciate the people that I grew up with, watching them on television, so my focus was on the “retro”— the “nostalgia”— stars that I looked up to as a kid and were and sort of my “TV friends for life. “ But then there are other people in the cast that when I told my nieces about them, she freaked out and was totally excited. The mix of some CHiPs, some High School Musical [stars], seems to have that appeal of something for everyone. We also saw some of the “legacy” sitcom stars turning to their modern-day counterparts and saying, “This is probably what’s going to happen to you over the next five, 10 years….” There was a real organic crossover between stars that span the generations, really.
TVLINE | Was anybody who had done a previous edition particularly excited to be back for this?
I think everyone was. We have 15 or 20 people who had done the show 30, 35 years ago…
TVLINE | I see Erik Estrada (CHiPs), Lisa Whelchel (The Facts of Life)…
….Kim Fields (The Facts of Life), Jimmie Walker (Good Times)…. I mean, Donna Mills came back with her tennis gear and crushed it. Those are the stories that I was focused on telling, sort of reliving the height of Knots Landing, if you were lucky enough to experience that era of TV, and watching someone like her come out three decades later and really compete.
TVLINE | Do you cut away to pretaped video packages about that? “Previously on Battle of the Network Stars, Donna Mills….”
Yes, we have a lot of [archival tapes of original host] Howard Cosell blaring out of the speakers here.
TVLINE | What sort of events are involved? Most importantly, is there still a Dunk Tank?
The Dunk tank has been modified with a bit of a 2017 spin; it’s now a 15-foot free-fall into the pool, which I think was a highlight of everyone’s day. We have Tug-of-War, Relay Race…. There are 12 events in every episode. And the obstacle course that the stars run at the end is very similar to the original, with a few upgrades. But the essence and the distinguishable pattern of red, white and blue tires laying on the ground remains the same.
TVLINE | How tricky was it to get gainfully employed actors to do this? You obviously can’t risk having Joshua Malina pull up lame just before Scandal starts back up production.
I’ve got to be honest — we were just pleasantly surprised [by the turnout]. We put the [Battle of the Network Stars] name out there and we had an overwhelmingly positive response. In the same way that you and I know that it’s a name you trust, the stars looked at it the same way. People signed up because this lets you connect with your fans in a different way than you would connect with them on a talk show. Josh Malina in particular came in saying that he grew up thinking that this was one of those “must-have” career notches in your belt. We heard a lot of that and appreciated it.
TVLINE | The only conspicuous omission, I would say, is that with allll the superhero shows on TV, you don’t have any of those stars.
Well, there’s The Hulk [aka Lou Ferrigno]. And Kevin Sorbo (Hercules, Supergirl) is in there. And Vinnie Jones (Arrow). Lou Ferrigno is an example of someone who previously set the record for the Tug-of-War, so the question is, “How does he do now, three decades later?” He came back every bit as fierce and intimidating as he must have been in the ’80s.
TVLINE | Was making the teams “network vs. network,” as they were back in the day, simply not an option? Did you see an opportunity to have more fun with themes?
Personally, I was driven by what seems like the most fun we could possibly have. People know these stars by the characters that they played and not as much as who signed their paycheck at the time.
TVLINE | Plus, back then you could do “A vs. B vs. C” and be done with it. Now, how would you split it up? “Today it’s TNT versus Oxygen! What?”
Honestly, it was just driven by what seems like the most fun. Having a “superteam” of cops that were all favorites of mine going up against a superteam of lawyers makes you feel like you’re in TV fan heaven. [The “White House” team] is just my personal selfish indulgence, because I’ve seen every episode of The West Wing 75 times!
TVLINE | Obviously you can’t do it to the degree of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but will the show “pay homage” in any way to the eye candy nature of the competition? Will there be shirtless hunks, swimsuits…?
The Aquatic Center, which was a haven of that in the ‘70s and ‘80s, has a lot to offer, but I think that the real driving force of the reboot is positive energy and a competitive spirit. And maybe less of…
TVLINE | Say, Heather Thomas in a one-piece.
There’s less of that, which I think suits the times.
Watch a promo for ABC’s Battle of the Network Stars reboot: