Turn-On (found ABC sketch comedy series; 1969)
The show's logo.
Status: Found (Completed episodes) Partially Found (Unfinished episodes)
Date found: 17 Jun 2023 (Completed episodes)
Found by: Philroc (Completed episodes)
On February 5th, 1969, American TV network ABC premiered the experimental sketch comedy series Turn-On, the first and only American TV series ever to be cancelled not just after but during its first episode. By the time it reached the Central time zone, it was already being yanked off the air by outraged affiliate stations and was shortly after buried without a trace by the network. The completed second episode along with any others in production were likewise never aired, and remain largely lost to this day.
Turn-On was created by Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, producers of the sketch comedy series Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, which premiered the previous year to great acclaim. As a result, there was great interest in what the duo would come up with next... which was, as it turned out, the same suggestive, progressive, boundary-pushing sketch comedy taken to what they considered its natural next level. This would be evident even in the new show's title, a play on the counterculture slogan "Turn on, tune in and drop out."
Friendly and Schlatter envisioned a sketch comedy series that was so revolutionary it didn't even have a human host; the show was supposedly 'programmed' via a giant computer, which also provided the Moog synthesizer-heavy soundtrack. Production executive Digby Wolfe described Turn-On as a "visual, comedic, sensory assault involving animation, videotape, stop-action film, electronic distortion, computer graphics—even people." This would include the earliest form of motion capture technology.
The goal was never to allow the viewer to become comfortable, even for a moment. There were no permanent sets - indeed, no physical backdrops at all - and no laugh track; only a rapid-fire series of quick cuts against a sterile white or black background, with multimedia clips constantly appearing randomly from different angles, often resulting in several playing at once on a split screen. The opening credits were likewise intercut throughout the program, with no end credits. Even the 'people' were relative unknowns, including Teresa Graves, Hamilton Camp, Mel Stewart, Chuck McCann, and (eventually, at the behest of bewildered executives) a weekly guest host, which for the premiere was comedian Tim Conway.
Sketches were very short (mostly under 30 seconds) and adult-oriented far beyond anything airing on American TV at the time - a kind of smutty stream-of-consciousness involving sex, race, sex, politics, sex, religion and of course sex. The only named recurring character was E. Eddie Edwards, a shoe salesman with a foot fetish. Many segments consisted solely of bizarre images or surrealist one-liners: "President Nixon now becomes the titular head of the Republican Party." The premiere episode featured over 30 such avant-garde snippets in just 25 minutes - a dizzying pace even by today's standards, and by contemporary ones, as it turned out, nigh-unwatchable.
Unsurprisingly enough, the pilot was rejected by two of the three major American networks - not only CBS but Laugh-In parent NBC. A CBS executive confessed that "It was so fast with the cuts and chops that some of our people actually got physically disturbed by it." Rival ABC, however, eager to ride the cutting edge of this hot new comedy trend, approved the show for a projected 16-week run; no light commitment, given the hefty price tag that came with full production of such an effect-heavy series. Pharma company Bristol-Meyers was set to sponsor.
According to Vulture magazine's history of the show, only two episodes were fully completed as of its soon-to-be infamous debut. The second episode was hosted by actors Robert Culp and his then-wife France Nuyen; no other prospective hosts or production details for later episodes have ever been confirmed.
However Andrew Sandoval, in The Monkees: The Day-By-Day Story of the 60s TV Pop Sensation, claims that the band appeared in a different unaired episode. Ebony magazine reported that six episodes in total were "taped"; however, again, post-production would have been an unusually lengthy process for a show this reliant on trick editing and special effects, meaning it's likely the remaining four episodes were still short of fully completed when the series was scrapped. How close each came, and what footage if any has survived, is wholly unknown.
Premiere and Cancellation
ABC scheduled Turn-On to premiere on February 5th, 1969 in the high-profile 8:30 PM Wednesday night prime-time slot, as a midseason replacement for the successful soap opera Peyton Place. Whatever that audience might have been expecting, by all accounts they were resoundingly unimpressed by what they saw. As were reviewers - and, most crucially, local network affiliates.
The backlash was swift beyond anything the American television industry had ever experienced. The show had only just premiered in the Central time zone when its decisive rejection commenced.
It began at WEWS in Cleveland, where a spokesman later claimed that the station's switchboard was "lit up" with protest calls. Personally outraged besides, general manager Donald Perris summarily yanked the show off-air at the first commercial break (either 10 or 15 minutes in, depending on the source). As the screen cut to black, Perris fired off a telegram to ABC president Elton Rule:
"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."
The Cleveland market's other primary ABC affiliate, WAKR in Akron, did not drop the program nor report receiving any complaints, but their general manager joined the growing chorus of protests against the show's "questionable taste". Station KATV in Little Rock, Arkansas also aired the show in full but later reported outraged viewers 'jamming' the switchboard.
Word of the oncoming debacle rolled swiftly across the ABC network. Several stations further west, on seeing it for themselves, huffily announced they would not broadcast Turn-On at all - including such critical metro markets as Denver, Portland (Oregon) and Seattle. WFAA in Dallas opted to reschedule their airing for the following Sunday night at 10:30 PM, with no better success. “The public reaction [to the rescheduling],” general manager Mike Shapiro said later, “was furious. ’How dare you?’ everyone screamed. Then they all watched it on Sunday night and wrote me and said, ’That was garbage. If you had any taste you wouldn’t have shown it at all.’"
Thus besieged on all sides, yet deeply committed financially if nothing else, ABC hedged. They announced on Feb 7th that Turn-On was on hiatus. (As an amusing footnote, the ABC Wednesday Night Movie that replaced it the following week was The Oscar, itself a legendary flop.) Throughout the flurry of media coverage, network executives made face-saving noises about reviewing and possibly revamping the show. However, if that review happened at all it apparently went nowhere, and Turn-On was turned off for good as of Feb 10th.
Co-creator Schlatter laid the blame on the "podunk" Midwestern affiliates' reaction but it's likely that the show was doomed from the start. Even more tolerant critics complained that, unlike other TV counter-culture comedy experiments like Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers, Turn-On just wasn't funny. "It wasn't a bad show," then-Los Angeles Free Press reviewer Harlan Ellison claimed, "it was just an awkward show." TV Guide pointed to the heavy emphasis on sex but also, interestingly, the lack of a solidly human element:
"(T)here wasn't any sort of identification with the audience - just a bunch of strangers up there insulting everything you believe in."
Either way, the experiment was definitively over. Turn-On's creators accepted its failure without further protest, quickly pivoting back to focus on Laugh-In (which, as a much more accessible take on the same ideas, would go on to a five-season run and an honored place in TV history). Schlatter was further pacified by ABC cutting him a generous deal "in which he’d get a full payout for the 16-episode order if he would accept that the two finished episodes would never again enter American living rooms. He took it, and Turn-On dissolved into myth."
Aside from being a decisive factor in ABC's refusal the following year to pick up similarly groundbreaking sitcom All in the Family, the Turn-On debacle was more or less forgotten until the 1980s, when ABC News aired a report featuring footage from the show. It was confirmed that the second episode, at least, had been completed.
It's likely that ABC still has both known episodes the in a vault somewhere, and equally likely that they don't plan to officially release them anytime soon. They have however made them available for viewing in full at The Paley Center for Media in New York City, albeit they cannot be recorded. It is unknown if any private copies exist.
One official if highly technical clip is widely available: one of the interstitial dancing animations. These interstitials were especially notable as among the first use of both computer graphics and motion capture in television history and were produced using the ANIMAC video synthesizer. The Turn-On clip can be found on Scanimate DVD-1, a DVD sold online by Dave Sieg, an engineering historian. On April 18th, 2021, the YouTube channel Ultimate History of CGI uploaded the clip under the title Turn On! Dancer (1969) - First dance motion capture.
A clip from the second episode has appeared on YouTube, and on March 1st, 2021, another clip from the first episode was uploaded by user [bluefrogTV]. Finally, on June 17th, 2023, YouTube user Philroc uploaded both completed episodes in full. These were swiftly challenged and removed on copyright grounds, but not before others had downloaded them to share privately.
In July 2023, Lost Media Wiki user Forlornjackalope discovered that a person known as OldShowBiz had been uploading various, miscellaneous bits of Turn On media to his Tumblr blog for the past 10 years. These include news clippings and pages to the second pilot's drafted script, which can be viewed in the gallery below.
On the Plus Two comedy series Stay Doomed, hosts Laura Prince and Noah Houlihan visited the Paley Center for an episode about Turn-On. Both found the presentation unnerving in much the same way that contemporary viewers had, pointing out that the avant-garde soundtrack combined with the fast edits, split screens, random messages and credits across the screen, all against the disorienting blank background, made for uncomfortable viewing at best. They confirmed that in any case, screening such an experimental show in primetime 1969 was a mistake.
While Prince gave the show a strongly negative review, Houlihan was more positive, giving it a stay tuned rating and adding that the show was like a "...Vine compilation video, if it was produced by Tim and Eric." Comparing the show's format to modern dark comedies like Too Many Cooks, he noted that it would be at home on newer surrealist showcases, like Cartoon Network's Adult Swim.
Charles Bramesco, writing in Vulture magazine, agrees that Turn-On eventually came out on the winning side of the culture war, but concludes that Schlatter and co were too wrapped up in their ego-driven desire to shock and awe to be really successful either commercially or artistically. In any era Turn-On seems to have been, as Harlan Ellison put it, simply, irredeemably awkward.
News Clippings and Articles
Second Pilot Drafted Script
- Vulture - The ’60s Sketch-Comedy Show That Crashed and Burned Into TV Infamy. Retrieved 21 Jul '21
- Stay Doomed - Episode 36 Turn-On
- The Show That Died After One Night: The Inglorious History of 'Turn-On,' a $1,000,000 TV Disaster. TV Guide, May 17–23 1969
- TV's Black Skyrocket - Ebony Magazine
- "Too Vulgar? Stations Turn Off Turn-On" Eugene, Oregon Register-Guard, Feb 8th 1969
- Interview with WFAA-TV general manager Mike Shapiro
- Scanimate's official website, where the DVD including the Turn-On motion capture clip is avaiable. Retrieved 23 Aug '19