Reality Check

When a critic slams Bravo’s new take on Battle of the Network Stars, our writer remembers what made the first one worth a do-over. As it turns out, while the show could be remade, it could hardly be revived.

In her Aug. 17 drubbing of Bravo’s new Battle of the Network Reality Stars, Times critic Virginia Heffernan dismissed the show. “This boring goof is meant to be a throwback to the hilarious hokeyness of Battle of the Network Stars… Those shows are fun to remember, maybe, but tonight’s reprise is a good reminder of how vapid they actually were,” she wrote. Heffernan is right on one count—Battle of the Network Reality Stars is awful. But she’s wrong about why.

The original Battle of the Network Stars was enormously entertaining—something like the Emmys, Us Weekly, and your school’s Field Day all rolled into one. These days, you only have to stand in the grocery line to discover what Jennifer Garner looks like after rolling out of bed for Starbucks, what Sarah Jessica Parker wears when she’s taking out the trash. But back when Battle of the Network Stars premiered in 1976, the sight of Wonder Woman without her lasso was something of a revelation. The show brought together the biggest television stars of the day—Farrah Fawcett, Scott Baio, Joan Collins—and featured them in alternately funny and compromising situations: bungling through the obstacle course, racing around a track, screaming in agony through the show’s tug-of-war finale. (Stars—they’re just like us!) In the premiere episode, respected television actor Robert Conrad flies frighteningly off-script—screaming foul at a ref, puffing away on a cigarette, challenging Welcome Back, Kotter’s Gabe Kaplan to a foot race—and losing! That doesn’t sound vapid to me: It sounds like a goldmine.

And it was. The show, created as a one-off special, became a twice-a-year television event. It introduced us to the season’s new stars (Adorable Charlene Tilton! Strapping Mark Harmon!) and reminded us about returning favorites (Stalwart Ed Asner! Beautiful Cheryl Tiegs!). Of course, the success of Battle of the Network Stars was also part of its undoing. The show promoted its actors not merely as network talent but also as personalities, thus increasing their appeal and power. Through the ‘80s, as those stars gained more cache—demanding higher salaries, worrying more about image—appearances on the show became a liability. What if they got hurt? What if they looked foolish? It certainly wasn’t worth a few thousand bucks and some free tennis shoes. By the time the show was canceled in 1988, it had been abandoned to network has-beens and newbies who didn’t know better. The original Battle of the Network Stars was a show very much of its time—a time of three networks, burgeoning celebrity worship, modest television salaries. These days, you couldn’t get Jennifer Aniston to collect a People’s Choice award for less than $10,000. Forget talking her into the dunk tank.

“We need to have a serious come-to-Jesus meeting with VH1 about the meaning of the word ‘celebrity.’” Like most things supremely ‘70s, the show is enjoying a resurgence of interest. About two years ago, TRIO aired several of the episodes to much nerd excitement. VH1’s I Love the ‘70s (or ‘80s, or ‘90s, or whatever) offered its own paean. ESPN brought together its own top athletes for Battle of the Gridiron Stars. And in a bizarre twist, Variety recently announced that Paramount Pictures has planned a fictional film version of the show about a washed-up network exec clawing his way back to the top, hopefully featuring the current comedy dream team of Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Will Farrell, and Steve Carrell—a kind of Anchorman meets Dodgeball. And so Bravo says that BoNS is back. And why not? With a mix of star-watching, competitive sports, and intimate interviews, it was a pretty thrilling little show in its heyday. Watching it now, you can see how influential it was—presaging not only today’s celebrity-mag culture but also the current glut of celebrity reality shows, although those tend to be populated by C-listers rather than real “stars.” (When VH1 premiered its Celebreality lineup, populated by such figures as WWF’s Chyna Doll and the Snapple lady, a friend told me, “We need to have a serious come-to-Jesus meeting with VH1 about the meaning of the word ‘celebrity.’”)

Which brings us to Bravo. The network, hoping to cash in on the BoNS nostalgia gravy train, calls upon the only public figures still willing, in this age of media scrutiny, to make idiots of themselves for a measly buck: reality television stars (and I use that final term loosely). The teams are made up of people from The Real World and American Idol, from The Amazing Race and Big Brother, from Joe Schmo and The Swan. They compete in the show’s original events—the obstacle course, the swim race, three-on-three football—and offer cringe-inducing nostalgia lessons on the original show’s importance. (In one, Project Runway’s Austin Scarlett unforgivably pronounced Scott Baio’s last name as “Bayou.”) But the show has not an ounce of charm, because no one cares about the participants. We don’t want to know what these people are “really like.” We don’t care how these people “really behave.” They have already groveled and embarrassed themselves on numerous occasions. It is the very basis of their fleeting celebrity. There is no mystery about them. No novelty to their appearances here. They’re not even funny, for crying out loud. Consider this exchange between the show’s hot female host and the Real World star who insists on spiking his hair into a mohawk and calling himself “The Miz.”

Hot female host: Tell me about the swim race. Tell me about the Speedo.

“The Miz”: Oh, you know about the Speedo!

Everyone: Ooooooh!

Who wanted to grow up to be an astronaut, or a politician, or an English teacher when you could be a network television star and play games all day in front of the camera? Bravo must find this clever, because it’s part of the ubiquitous television commercial. But it lacks even the wit of the fifth-grade schoolyard. Someone would have to be incredibly invested in reality-television stars to find this entertaining. I’m not saying those people aren’t out there; I’m just saying.

The special’s original host was Howard Cosell, who (bless his heart) treated each and every event like it was the victory-clenching final moments of Monday Night Football. “I’ve seen million-dollar athletes not expend this kind of energy!” he hyperbolized during one tug-of-war. “And beautiful Michelle Phillips… She’s not so beautiful now.” He was smitten with the beauty of the women, and he had respect for the agility of former college athletes like Mark Harmon and Gregory Harrison. He has said hosting the show was one of his favorite gigs, which isn’t hard to understand. It was the kind of thing that made being a celebrity look like a tremendous deal of fun, a big party in Malibu where everyone was pals and everything was free. Who wanted to grow up to be an astronaut, or a politician, or an English teacher when you could be a network television star and play games all day in front of the camera?

All of this makes Battle of the Network Stars something of a terrible influence. Probably the reason I know more about fleeting ‘80s celebrities than I do about, say, American history. But vapid? The fact that it wasn’t vapid is the reason for its unexpected success. It wasn’t deep. It wasn’t profound. But, unlike its dull Bravo incarnation, it was exactly what it set out to be—good television.