'Battle of the Network Stars': Inside TV's First Reality Competition

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David Letterman, a regular on Mary Tyler Moore’s variety show "Mary," kayaked in 1978. Reruns of the specials air on ESPN Classic.

David Letterman in a kayak? Yes, it really happened on ABC's long-running series of specials, which not only drew the hottest TV stars of the 1970s and '80s but also reigned in the ratings.

This story first appeared in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Long before Dancing With the Stars and Splash, there was Battle of the Network Stars, the grandfather of all celebrity reality competitions. ABC’s series of sweeps-month specials, which aired from 1976 to 1988, featured A-list talent from the Big Three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC (which back then were, of course, the only broadcast networks), competing surprisingly seriously in Olympics-style events. Each network fielded a team, with a tug-of-war finale between the top two squads. Tube socks and tracksuits were in ready supply.

Unlike contemporary shows — whose casting can leave viewers asking, “Who?” — producers got the hottest TV stars of the time from such series as Dynasty, Dallas and Charlie’s Angels. “It was the creme de la creme of network stars, not sub-stars,” says veteran reality producer Vin Di Bona, who produced the last of the 19 specials. Lending some gravitas was the legendary commentator Howard Cosell. Winning team members got a cash prize that eventually topped $40,000. “Howard once said it was the only honest sports com- petition on TV. On Battle, we said it: It was about the money,” recalls showrunner/producer Bill Garnet.

The specials, which consistently won their time slot, would never happen today, says Di Bona. “I don’t think there’s much cordiality between the networks,” he says. Back then, “All the stars wanted to do it because there was a rivalry. You had Magnum, P.I. wanting to battle Adam-12. They really wanted to outdo themselves.”