Back in the late 1970s and early '80s, local TV stations across the United States started airing a strange new children’s show called TV Powww! An effort to capitalize on the popularity of a new technology—video games—the show let viewers call in and control simple on-screen video games via telephone.
If you’re interested in tracing the origins of online gaming phenomena like X-Box Live, TV Powww! isn’t a bad place to start. It was the first attempt at live, interactive video-gaming in the pre-Internet era and an innovative mix of communication and entertainment technologies.
The result of that fascinating technological experiment? A bunch of elementary schoolers screaming the word “Pow!” repeatedly into their telephones while staring in total frustration at the television.
TV Powww! had a simple premise: Pre-chosen participants would call in, chat briefly with the local TV Powww! host, and then play a game. Though there were a range of possible video games, including NFL football and NBA basketball, the most common—or simply the most fondly remembered—seems to have been a simple outer space shooter. Participants would shoot down enemy space ships by screaming “Pow” when they entered a static viewfinder in the center of the screen.
Because of the lag in television signal, it was extremely difficult for players to accurately time their shots. The few extra moments it took for the image to reach a kid’s TV screen at home meant that even the quickest reflexes weren’t enough to shoot down spaceships with any accuracy. As a result, many children would just try to get in as many shots as possible.
In an article on the Bay Area’s iteration of TV Powww!, hosted by Pat McCormick, SF Gate writes, “Some kids would just say 'PowPowPowPowPow!' super fast over and over for 30 seconds, and then a slightly exasperated McCormick would say ‘Bobby is trying the old machine gun approach …’”
The TV Powww! prizes, meanwhile, were usually a grab bag of junk and junk food: gift cards to local businesses, promotional T-shirts, McDonald’s Happy Meals, and bags of potato chips (it’s easy to imagine production staff raiding the studio’s vending machine for prizes).
Charlie Anderson, who won a round of New York City’s TV Pixxx! (WPIX’s version of TV Powww!), told The New York Times, “I won a $10 gift certificate for Sam Goody and a TV Pixxx! T-shirt.”
In the video below, 8-year-old John Goglick narrowly misses out on winning “a McDonald’s Happy Meal, a TV Powww! T-shirt, a pass to the Telstar Family Amusement Center, and a bag of potato chips.”
To this day, there’s some debate over how the mechanics of the TV Powww! game actually worked. While some believe it was an early form of voice-activated technology—that the video games were reprogrammed to respond to voice-commands—others believe there was simply a crew member hiding off-screen pressing the “fire” button every time a kid yelled “Pow.”
But if TV Powww!’s prizes and technology seem underwhelming from a contemporary vantage point, it’s important to remember that, back in the late '70s and '80s, this kind of interactive television was totally new and exciting. "Many, many people played that game, and loved it," TV Powww! distributor Marvin Kempner told The New York Times. ''It was the first interactive show that was commercially successful."