Ronda Rousey to Star In "Battle of the Network Stars" Reboot

A TV classic from the 1970s makes its long-awaited, enlightened return.
May 30, 2017, 8:08pm
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Back in the late 1970s some programming executive at the American Broadcasting Company had an idea of such overwhelming and undeniable genius that even the network's two competitors wanted to be a part of it: Gather together 10 stars from each of the Big Three networks and have them compete against one another in a series of sporting events. Anyone who was anyone in television was involved: Tom Selleck, Linda Evans, Scott Baio, Mr. T, Heather Locklear, Vicki Lawrence, Tony Danza, and on and on. Those names may not mean much today but back then—back when there were only three networks and no Internet or real cable television to compete for American attentions—they were enormous shining lights. And who wouldn't want to watch Gabe Kaplan from Welcome Back Kotter coaching Penny Marshall from Laverne and Shirley in a tennis match against Gary Burghoff from M*A*S*H or Demond Williams from Sanford & Son? What true-blooded American would turn down the opportunity to see a sprint relay team featuring both Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk) and Billy Crystal (Soap), or Michael J. Fox (Family Ties) and Kim Fields (The Facts of Life)? Who would dare turn away from the chance to witness the great TV stars of the day settling all scores once and for all with a tug-of-war? For 12 years, Battle of the Network Stars was not only the greatest thing on television, but the very encapsulation of the American dream: celebrities in short shorts and skimpy bathing suits proving their physical superiority via obstacle courses in front of millions of adoring fans.

Which raises a simple question: How, in our age of perpetual reboots, has someone not thought to bring this show back?

Well, take heart because someone has. Starting June 29, Battle of the Network Stars will be returning to ABC, not as a twice-yearly bit of special programming but as a weekly series running 10 episodes. That's not the only difference. Acknowledging the enormous changes that television has undergone in the 30 years, the new Battle won't feature three teams representing particular networks but teams composed thematically: for example, all sitcoms dads, or all TV surgeons, or all (fictional) White House staffers. Which means teams won't just be featuring actors from today but also from television shows past, like L.A. Law and Happy Days and The Facts of Life. Brought to you in a new amped-up, faster-paced format sure to delight younger fans who would kill to see the cast of The Big Bang Theory racing in kayaks but who have no idea what The Facts of Life is.

Still, the real revolution here may in the coaching. Back during the show's original run, BNS teams were coached by their own. Kojak's Telly Savalas coached the CBS Team and Magnum PI's William Devane coached the NBA Team and Hill Street Blues' Daniel J. Travanti coached the NBC Team. The coaches were actors first and ad hoc coaches (Salavas smoked onscreen throughout his tenure) second. Not so anymore. This time around, in an effort to make the show more of a legitimate sporting event, producers have hired two permanent coaches to motivate our favorite stars through those obstacles courses and 200-yard dashes, and one of those coaches is former UFC women's bantamweight champion and women's MMA pioneer Ronda Rousey, who appears to be making her long-simmering transition out of fighting and into Hollywood stardom permanent after losing to current champion Amanda Nunes in December.

Back in the 70s and 80s women weren't considered coach material by the producers of BNS. Oh, viewers were happy to see a scantily clad Catherine Bach (The Dukes of Hazzard) or Erin Gray (Buck Rogers in the 25th Century) plunged into the dunk tank and then exiting soaking wet, but in 12 years only two women were allowed to be coaches. Cathy Lee Crosby from That's Incredible! broke the glass ceiling in 1980 and country singer Barbara Mandrell followed suit a year later, but that was it.

Similarly, it was assumed by many just a few years ago that women couldn't or shouldn't compete in MMA, and that if they did no one would watch. Then along came Ronda Rousey and all our quaint notions about women and cage-fighting were blasted to the heavens. So, while Battle of the Network Stars may be miles away from the big-money big-screen action franchises Rousey was getting roles in back when she was still considered an unbeatable fighter (not to mention evidence that Hollywood is a cruel and unforgiving seducer that will turn its back on you the second your star begins to fade), Rousey's role as coach, as unglamorous as it may seem, fits in nicely with her narrative as a born destroyer of cultural boundaries, giving her a chance to smash once and for all the petty little prejudices we lovers of televised celebrity athletic competitions have been burdened with for the last three decades.