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Video Digest: July 6, 2007

Battle of the Network Stars: Sarah Hepola dives into her past--and into the pool with Wonder Woman, Scott Baio, various now-forgotten stars, and yes, Scott Baio.

About two years ago I wrote an article for this magazine about Battle of the Network Stars. It was an attempt to defend the 70s and 80s kitsch show—as an early example of reality television and, thanks to some clever soul at VH1, what has become known as celebreality programming. What strikes me now is how earnest that piece is. I’ll leave it to the academics to speak on art; I’ll be in my foxhole, lashing out at Virginia Heffernan for dismissing Scott Baio in tube socks. Joel Stein, watch your back.

Anyway, what that article needed, more than anything, was video clips. This is where YouTube comes in. Since then, kind souls have uploaded dozens of classic moments, some of which I will now curate for you. Don’t care? Join Team Heffernan. Team Hepola will be here, cheering on Shatner to win the Tug of War.

These are the first moments of the first Battle of the Network Stars in 1976. It’s a bit draggy, but I adore the way Howard Cosell treats every moment like a battle between Ali and Foreman. And it always knocks me out to see the first competition, the swimming relay. Here we have Wonder Woman in a swimsuit next to Adrienne Barbeau. Yikes, you could write a paean to these nipples. (And don’t think I haven’t!) I guess I’m just an 80s dork, but I still think this is so cool. It would be like seeing the cast of The Office compete in the Olympics.

Scott Baio was the undisputed MVP of BONS. He may have been a shrimp, but the boy could MOVE. He won the obstacle course, like, eight times in a row and eventually came back as a host in the late 80s so he could chill with Cosell and chat up Heather Locklear and Nicolette Sheridan. I enjoy watching Cathie Lee Crosby running against Randi Oakes (who, if memory serves, met her husband Gregory Harrison while doing Battle), because you can’t imagine top-dollar actresses hurtling themselves through obstacle courses these days. But the real money is at 4:09, when Baio takes the course. He may be 45 and single now, but back then, the boy had skills.

The dunk tank was a sexual awakening for many an 80s boy. But for me, it was a drag, because I always wanted to be an actress, and I can remember thinking, well, I can’t be an actress because I won’t be comfortable wearing a swimsuit in the dunk tank. Somehow THAT was the only obstacle I thought I faced. Gee, if only I’d had a more flattering bikini, I might be starring right now on the WB.

Every Battle came down to the last face-off, the tug of war. It was a fitting, end-of-summer-camp finale. And how could you not love it? Come on, look at who’s here: Gabe Kaplan, Billy Crystal. Freakin’ Shatner. I want to play for this team. I want to drink at the bar afterward. God, it just made being a celebrity seem like so much fun. And that’s the lasting impact of Battle, anyway. Who wants to be an actor—when you could be a STAR?

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