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.

This $49 Video Game Design Course Will Teach You Everything From Coding to Digital Art Skills

EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

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The Fur Trade: How the Care Bears Conquered the '80s

Care Bears were one of the great merchandising success stories of the 1980s.
Care Bears were one of the great merchandising success stories of the 1980s.
Kristy Sparrow, Getty Images

How do you patent a teddy bear? That was the question facing executives at American Greetings, the popular greeting card company, and toy kingpin Kenner in the early 1980s. American Greetings was coming off the success of Strawberry Shortcake, an apple-cheeked sensation that adorned cards and hundreds of licensed products. Kenner was the force behind the Star Wars action figure line, which rolled out in the late 1970s and went on to become one of the biggest success stories in the history of the toy industry.

Now the two companies wanted to collaborate on a line of teddy bears. For Kenner, it was an opportunity to break into the lucrative plush toy market. For American Greetings, having a stuffed, furry iteration of a greeting card—complete with a name, a unique color, and an emotional message—was the goal. The solution? Put greeting card-esque designs on the bears's stomachs and call them Care Bears. It was a simple idea that proceeded to rake in roughly $2 billion in sales in the Care Bears's first five years alone.

 

Strawberry Shortcake was the brainchild of Those Characters From Cleveland, a creative subsidiary of American Greetings headed up by co-presidents Jack Chojnacki and Ralph Shaffer. (While on a business meeting on the West Coast, the two overheard a receptionist telling someone that “those guys from Cleveland” were there, inspiring the name.) Given a mission from Kenner to reinvent the teddy bear, a childhood staple since the turn of the 20th century, Those Characters recruited cartoonist Dave Polter and freelance artist Elena Kucharik.

Shaffer examined the rainbow, heart, and other greeting card designs submitted by Polter. He then examined the bear sketches turned in by Kucharik. They fit together like two puzzle pieces. Putting the colorful designs on the bear’s stomach gave it a quality similar to the sentimental cards American Greetings was known for.

Two Care Bears are pictured at the Boy Meets Girl x Care Bears Collection at Colette in Paris, France in February 2017
Care Bears symbolize friendship—and billions of dollars in revenue.
Kristy Sparrow, Getty Images

Those Characters continued to refine the look of the bears, compressing their frame and giving them a little extra volume to make them more squeezable, and a heart-shaped button on their rear ends identified them as Care Bears. American Greetings was able to secure a patent based on the graphic design of their bellies. Their two-dimensional look was fleshed out by Sue Trentel, a plush designer who was able to craft a teddy that resembled the drawings.

The creative team eventually settled on a lineup of 10 bears, each one a different color and reflecting a different emotional dimension. There was Bedtime Bear, Birthday Bear, Cheer Bear, Friend Bear, Funshine Bear, Good Luck Bear, Love-a-Lot Bear, Tenderheart Bear, and Wish Bear, along with one anomaly. To balance out the potential overdose of saccharine feelings, Grumpy Bear was added. In the narrative devised by Those Characters, the Care Bears lived in a giant castle and went out on missions of caring.

While Kenner was leading the charge in terms of marketing, American Greetings knew they had a premise with broad appeal. Before any Care Bears made it to shelves, the company secured 26 licensees to manufacture everything from clothing to bedsheets to coloring books. Retailers who may have been reluctant to devote store space to a new line of teddy bears were impressed by the support, leading chains like Walmart, Kmart, and Target to quickly sign on.

 

To complement the launch of the Care Bears at the 1983 Toy Fair in New York City, Kenner president Bernie Loomis mounted a major Broadway-style stage production at a cost of roughly $1 million. During the show, Strawberry Shortcake made an appearance to introduce the next great merchandising craze.

The bears went on sale that March and quickly sold out. Desperate for more product, Kenner promised a factory owner in Taiwan a new Mercedes if he could make 1 million more Care Bears—and quickly. (Kenner got their bears, and the factory owner got his car.) American Greetings had a 16-foot stretch of Care Bears cards lining the greeting card aisles. An animated series was a hit. The Care Bears Movie followed in 1985. By 1988, more than 40 million Care Bears had been sold. By 2007, the number was 110 million. The teddy bear had successfully been reinvented.

Several Care Bears are pictured on a table at the Boy Meets Girl x Care Bears Collection at Colette in Paris, France in February 2017
Care Bears have endured for nearly 40 years.
Kristy Sparrow, Getty Images

The Care Bears have been reintroduced several times, including in 2002, 2007, and 2013. American Greetings is still marketing the Care Bears under their Cloudco Entertainment brand. A new animated series, Care Bears: Unlock the Magic, began airing on Boomerang in 2019, while apparel and other licensing—like Care Bears Funko Pops! and Care Bears clothing for Mattel’s Barbie—is still going strong.

Why the enduring appeal? In 2007, Polter credited the secularized version of values that are often instilled in churches. The Care Bears were on a mission of sharing, loving, and caring—a greeting card message that never had to leave your side.