Tuesday, February 5, 2019

50 Years Ago the TV Show Turn-On Got Turned Off

Unless they are of a certain age, chances are good that most people have never heard of the TV show Turn-On. That having been said, among TV historians and classic television buffs, Turn-On is the stuff of legends. It was a show that was so outrageous that only one episode ever aired. It was a show so offensive that it was cancelled even as that first and only episode aired. It was a show that generated such controversy that it was even mentioned at a Senate Communications Subcommittee meeting. Regardless of the legends, the true story of Turn-On is one of the more interesting bits of television history. It was fifty years ago today that Turn-On debuted on ABC at 8:30 PM Eastern/7:30 PM Central.

Turn-On was the creation of Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, the two men responsible for the classic Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In had been a smash hit, so big that it became the no. 1 show in only its second season. It was while they were riding high on the success of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In that Ed Friendly and George Schlatter created Turn-On.

Today Turn-On is a difficult show to describe. The central conceit of the sketch comedy show was that it was programmed by a computer. It took place in a white space devoid of any sets whatsoever. Further differentiating it from other shows of the time was that its score was provided by a Moog synthesizer, a relatively new instrument that had only been used on a few experimental records and pop songs at the time. Turn-On also moved at a break-neck speed, making the generally fast-paced Laugh-In look slow in comparison. In the space of a half hour there were around 30 different sketches aired in the first episode. Producer Digby Wolfe described Turn-On as a "a "visual, comedic, sensory assault involving animation, videotape, stop-action film, electronic distortion, computer graphics--even people."

Even with the success of Laugh-In, Turn-On proved to be a hard sell to the networks. NBC rejected the show outright. CBS also turned the show down, with an official at the network commenting, "It was so fast with the cuts and chops that some of our people actually got physically disturbed by it." At last Ed Friendly and George Schlatter sold the show to ABC. The generally conservative pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers signed on as the show's primary sponsor. Turn-On was set to air for 16 weeks.

On paper, at least, Turn-On must have looked very good at the time. The guest host for its first and only episode to air was Tim Conway, then best known as Ensign Parker on the popular sitcom McHale's Navy. The show also featured two veteran performers. Hamilton Camp was an established actor and folk singer who had played handyman Andrew Hummel on the late, lamented sitcom He & She. Chuck McCann was a puppeteer, voice artist, actor, impressionist, and comedian who was already well-known as a children's show host. Other members of the cast who were not yet famous soon would be. Teresa Graves would join the cast of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In the following season and  would later play the lead role in the TV series Get Christie Love!. Mel Stewart would go on to play Henry Jefferson on All in the Family and section chief Billy Melrose on Scarecrow & Mrs. King, among many other roles. Among the writers on the show was a young Albert Brooks.

Unfortunately what must have looked good on paper proved to be an entirely different matter in reality. Even before Turn-On aired, there were signs that there was trouble ahead. ABC's Dallas affiliate, WFAA, elected to air Turn-On on Sunday night at 10:30 to minimise any adverse reaction to the show. It was as the first episode aired in the Eastern and Central time zones that it became even more obvious that Turn-On would be a problem for ABC. Their Cleveland affiliate WEWS left the show after its first commercial break, airing instead a blank screen and organ music (an emergency procedure that had not been used in twenty years). WEWS's station manager was so outraged by Turn-On that he even sent a telegram to ABC that read,"If your naughty little boys have to write dirty words on the walls, please don't use our walls. Turn-On is turned off, as far as WEWS is concerned." Even as the first episode was airing in the eastern time zones, ABC affiliates in the Mountain and Pacific time zones decided not to air it, including KATU in Portland, Oregon, KOMO in Seattle, and KBTV in Denver. Regarding their refusal to air Turn-On, KBTV issued the statement, "We have decided, without hesitation, that it would be offensive to a major segment of the audience."

It wasn't only ABC's affiliates that were offended by Turn-On, but a good section of the audience. The switchboards of some of ABC's stations were jammed with calls complaining about the show. ABC itself received 369 complaints about the show even as it aired. The network only received twenty calls in favour of Turn-On.

The fallout from Turn-On was swift and immediate. While the legend that Turn-On was cancelled even as the first episode aired is not quite true, it might as well be. The show received overwhelmingly bad reviews, including ones from The New York Times and Associated Press. Worse yet, seventy-five ABC affiliates, including WEWS in Cleveland, KBTV in Beaumont, Texas, and KATV in Little Rock, refused to air any further episodes. It was on February 7, only two days after the debut of Turn-On, that ABC announced that Turn-On was going on hiatus. The following Wednesday its slot would be filled by the movie The Oscar (1966). It was on February 10 that ABC officially cancelled Turn-On. ABC relayed news of the cancellation to Bristol-Myers, who in turn sent a telegram to Schlatter-Friendly Productions informing them that the episodes of Turn-On were unacceptable and telling them to cease production.

Turn-On would never air in its entirety again. At the time of its only broadcast, there was only one more episode completed. The second episode featured Robert Culp and then wife France Nuyen as the guest hosts. Reportedly some work had been completed on other episodes. According to Andrew Sandoval in his book The Monkees: The Day-By-Day Story of the 60s, The Monkees (without Peter Tork, who had left the group by that time) filmed a guest appearance on Turn-On. Given how swiftly the show had been cancelled, Turn-On was still listed in TV Guide and ads for the second episode appeared in TV Guide and elsewhere. Turn-On would continue to appear in TV listings in newspapers for weeks following its cancellation. From TV listings it appears that Sebastian Cabot would have been the guest host for the third episode. Ultimately Turn-On would be replaced by a much more wholesome revival of The King Family Show.

Fallout from Turn-On would not stop with the television industry. At a hearing held by the Senate Communications Subcommittee on March 12 1969, Leonard Goldenson, president of American Broadcasting Companies, and Elton H. Rule, president of ABC Television Network, were questioned regarding Turn-On. Ultimately the controversy over Turn-On would prove so great that ABC would pass on a pilot that was an American adaptation of the British hit Till Death Do Us Part from producer Norman Lear. The show centred on a foul-mouthed bigot. Fortunately for Norman Lear, CBS took an interest in the show and bought it, renaming it All in the Family.

As to why Turn-On elicited such adverse reactions from ABC's affiliates and viewers alike, much of the reason may have been because a good deal of the humour was based around sex. One notorious skit involved a young woman attempting to retrieve The Pill (as in the birth control pill) from a vending machine. Another sketch involved a comely woman about to be executed by a firing squad. When the leader of the firing squad approached the woman, he said, "I know this may seem a little awkward, miss, but in this case the firing squad has one last request." A rather long sketch simply involved guest host Tim Conway and series regular Bonnie Boland staring at one another as the word "SEX" flashed above their heads.

Even when the sketches did not involve sex, they could have been considered offensive by some at the time. A recurring sketch throughout the first episode involved Tim Conway playing a man attempting suicide and constantly failing at it. Another sketch featured an armed man (played by Carlos Manteca) attempting to hijack Superman (played by Tim Conway) to Cuba. Yet another sketch featured the Pope flashing peace signs and saying, "Peace, baby." A cartoon that appeared on the show involved two characters using weapons on each other until at last one of them utilised the atomic bomb. Even if a few more conservative members of the audience somehow were not offended by the show's sexual content (which appears to be mild by today's standards), they were probably offended by some of the show's other sketches.

Beyond offensive content, it seems possible that there could have been other reasons for the failure of Turn-On. It seems possible that even for those in the audience who were not offended by the show's content that it might have simply been too fast paced. In the days before MTV brought rapid-fire editing to American television in the Eighties, shows such as The Monkees and Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In were regarded as relatively fast-paced. Reportedly Turn-On made both of those shows look like snails. Another problem that viewers might have had with Turn-On is the lack of any sets whatsoever and its lack of a regular host. In addition to its sexual content offending viewers, the May 17-23 1969 issue of TV Guide quoted a source who said, "There wasn't any sort of identification with the audience--just a bunch of strangers up there insulting everything you believe in." In 2008 Tim Conway said, "Turn-On was way ahead of its time. I'm not sure even if you saw it today that maybe that time has also passed."

Yet another reason for the failure of Turn-On may have been that the show simply was not that funny. An ABC executive at the time compared Turn-On to The Dean Martin Show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in terms of sexual content, but then pointed out the difference between those shows and Turn-On was that "they're funny." As if the few clips of the show that have been seen since it first aired weren't proof enough, many comments from users on the IMDB entry for Turn-On confirm that the show simply wasn't very funny at all. That having been said, author Harlan Ellison defended the show. In his regular column in The Los Angeles Free Press, he commented, "It wasn't that it was a bad show, it was that it was an awkward show."

As notorious as Turn-On is, it is not the only show to be cancelled after one episode, nor was it even the first. What may have been the first show to ever be cancelled after one episode was the panel show Who's Whose, which aired for one episode only on CBS in 1951. You're in the Picture was so notoriously bad that only a single episode aired in January 1961. It was so low in quality that the following Friday host Jackie Gleason aired an apology. Since Turn-On the shows Co-Ed Fever, Melba, and South of Sunset have each aired for only a single episode. 

Turn-On has not been seen its entirety ever since that fateful night of February 5 1969. Clips from the show's unaired second episode would air on ABC World News Tonight and a documentary for the BBC's Channel 4. A few snippets from the show's first episode (including part of the infamous"vending machine" sketch) appeared in the 2002 documentary TV's Most Censored Moments on the cable channel Trio. What is more, it seems unlikely that it will ever be seen in its entirety again. According to George Schlatter in interviews, Schlatter-Friendly Productions were paid by the network only on the condition that they never show Turn-On again anywhere. Those who want to see episodes of the show need not give up hope, however, as both the Paley Centre in New York City and the Paley Centre in Los Angeles have copies of the only two episodes of the show.

Turn-On has remained notorious ever since it aired for its one and only time on February 5 1969. To this day it is still counted among the biggest debacles ever to air on American television (or anywhere else for that matter). It also often makes lists of the worst TV shows of all time. And while it aired only once, Turn-On would have a lasting impact. Had Turn-On not turned out to be the flop that it was, ABC might well have gone ahead with the pilot from Norman Lear that ultimately became All in the Family on CBS. Given it was a topic of the Senate Communications Subcommittee, there can be little doubt that Turn-On gave television's detractors another weapon for their arsenal. While the content of Turn-On might seem mild by today's standards, in 1969 it proved highly controversial.


top_cat_james said...

Since Turn-On the shows Co-Ed Fever, Melba, and South of Sunset have each aired for only a single episode.

There was also Emily's Reasons Why Not (2006). Fittingly enough,Turn-On would seem to be a more appropriate title for a show starring Heather Graham.  

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks, James. I entirely forgot about Emily's Reasons Why Not.