The History of Starcade
by Jim and Mavis Caruso,
Some pictures courtesy of Jeff Kinder and The
Dragon's Lair Project
In 1981 while lying on the beach at Caneel Bay, Mavis and I came up with the idea of producing a TV game show using video arcade games. Back then the games were the "hot item" with the kids, especially 12-year-old boys.
We wrote the script and put the production together. Mike Eruzione (Captain of the Gold Medal winning US Olympic Hockey team) hosted our first Starcade pilot. We thought a sports competition was just what the games needed to gain respectability. We had a high profile “Star” guest player, Larry Wilcox (Chips) to play the winner of the contest on a brand new game that was just hitting the arcades, "Donkey Kong."
We had 24 contestants on stage divided into three teams, with each team member playing at the same time as the others for high score. The set was very "high tech" with fog, strobe lights, and the sounds of the games. Nolan Bushnell and Chuck E. Cheese asked a local distributor to go to the manufactures and talk them into loaning us 24 games to use in the pilot. We had eight of each of, Defender, Centipede and Pac-Man for the contestants to play.
We knew nothing about the technical aspects of the games and just figured video is video and TV's video so we could just put game video in the broadcast video. WRONG and that was just the beginning of the problems. Getting the show up and running so we could start taping took at least 10 hours after we were in the studio. Everyone was running low on patience. Larry's agent wanted him to leave, Mike is nervous and blowing his lines, the Director (me) is having a tough time keeping the crew and the production side all under control, the Producer (Mavis) is trying to keep the contestants, the guest and the rest of the show together.
Besides the 24 contestants, the host and the "guest star" we had 43 crew members that all had to do something at a precise time during shooting to make the whole thing work. Finally, "ROLL TAPE.” In five more hours, we got enough on tape to be able to edit the first show together. Editing took another 12 hours. We went on the air Sunday, Sept. 13, 1981 at 6 PM on KRON (NBC) in San Francisco. The overnight ratings showed that STARCADE beat out all of the competition and actually built audience in the second quarter hour.
We thought that we had a hit and that the networks or syndication would be beating down our doors to get Starcade. WRONG. We did air Starcade a few more times in Fresno, Santa Barbara and some of the smaller markets in California where we did get some decent ratings, but we could not get Starcade picked up so, back to the drawing board. We developed a new format, wrote the script, designed a set, and built the model so our prospects would the idea of what Starcade would look like when it went on the air. This new concept and format was more or less, what finally went on the air in 1982.
We made several appointments in "Hollywood" and went down to pitch the "new" Starcade. The first person that we pitched was Phil Ross, the VP of O&O (owned and operated stations) programming at NBC. We knew we were pitching to the decision maker because as we sat down he, with a flourish, pushed a button on his desk and the office door closed.
Pitch meetings usually last about thirty-eight seconds, then eyes glaze over and you know it’s time to leave and you do because you might want to come back some day. Phil closing the door gave us a jolt of confidence and we started waving our arms, showing him the set, reading the script, and showing the first pilot, the ratings.
After about 3 hours of this Phil looks up at us and says, "How did you two get in here anyway"? We told him we just called and made an appointment. He says, "That took a lot of 'chutzpah' but, go see this guy, he’s usually in my waiting room, his name is Alex Trebeck. If he'll host the show, make a new pilot and bring it back and I'll show Starcade to all five of my station managers. (Networks were only allowed to own five stations then.)
We met Alex, who was not working, as he was moving from his Mulholland Drive house to his Mother in law’s house. We offered him 5K to do 3 pilots and he almost kissed us both in the middle of the street he was so happy at getting some work and the prospect of a series on NBC.
About four hectic weeks later, we were ready and went into production at The Bridge Studios in San Francisco. We "live" switched three cameras, which only the networks did in those days. Nobody in SF had ever done such a thing and luckily, for us, no one that was working on the crew knew much more about producing broadcast TV than we did. If it worked we did it, after all we had been educated producing commercials, corporate training videos and watching TV since we were born.
NBC sent a C&P (compliance and practices) lawyer up from Burbank to oversee the legalities of the project and help with the rules of the game. The next day the VP of NBC C&P division in New York shows up. Game show rules and regulations were strict because of the fixing scandals in the 60's.
The network wanted us to hide the names of the manufacturers of the games and not refer to them at all. We said that was not the agreement that we had with the game makers and that we were absolutely not going to break our word to Bally-Midway, Nintendo, Nolan Bushnell, etc. The C&P people finally capitulated and we went ahead with the production and all of the manufactures got the exposure that they were promised.
Alex as host was himself, just the same as you see him today on Jeopardy. He was formal and precise. He looked as if he was not having any fun, but we finally got him to loosen up and he really got into it. Alex worked hard and was definitely interested in positive outcome. In fact, we (Alex , Mavis, and I) all spent 24 hours straight, together in an edit suite in San Francisco to put the second pilot together.
We delivered six broadcast quality dubs of Starcade to NBC and guess what? Ross liked it but his five station managers did not. They had such remarks as "no home audience participation" or "who wants to watch kids play games,” "how does the viewer participate in the show?” The best one was "video games are destructive to kid's minds so we don't want to show them on OUR TV station.” “They are bad for kids.” This all has not changed today, as we are sure that you know, just different people saying the same old stuff.
Anyway, we were not about to give up; we had over $60k of our own money invested in Starcade and a lot of backing from the manufactures, of course. We started shopping the pilot around looking for a network or syndication or an agent. We introduced to the producer of The Cisco Kid, Jack Rhodes of Rhodes Productions. He told us he might have something or at least an in if we were willing to put it on cable. Cable was just getting started and had about 20% penetration of all the TV homes in the US, We said OK, if it was the right company. It turned out that it was the leading cable pioneer, Ted Turner.
We were told Ted had a potential sponsor who committed to buy time on WTBS the Super Station, if they could find the right show. The sponsor was Parker Brothers who were one of the first to make video games for home play. Ted sent the Chairman of the Board of Turner Program Services, Sid Pike out to San Francisco to make the deal. TPS was to become the syndication arm of Turner Broadcasting Company. Starcade was the second TV show that they had acquired. The first was The WWF. We made a deal for to produce 13 shows. Turner would air one a week on Saturday at 9 AM (6 AM in the west) and would sell the show to other independent or network affiliates through Turner Program Services.
Now that we had a deal, we finished the set, continued to develop the idea and started writing the final script. After getting a shooting script, we started auditions for the host, announcer, the video/audio crew, the equipment, and locating a four-wall studio that was suitable to produce in and have room for an audience. Our basic concept was to do a live show. Live to tape that is, with a minimum of editing. We did the final editing at Vidtronics in Hollywood.
We also had to get the word out to potential contestants so that we could start auditions. We had to put "the bible" together. This book is all of the rules and regulations under which we will produce the show. It included, contestant selection, how they would qualify, how they would be matched up, how prizes would be awarded. It also included how taxes would be paid, all insurance provisions, including errors and omissions and a million other details required by everyone involved with the production, syndication and broadcast and oh yes, Uncle Sam.
We wanted a new face for host and started auditions among "unknowns" because we wanted a fresh approach for this important position. We finally selected Mark Richards whose lifetime ambition was to be a game show host.
We started to work out all of the technical considerations of combining non-NTSC video with broadcast standards. We finally just pointed a video camera at the game screen and decided we would have to live with the scan lines on some games. We followed the action on the video arcade game’s screen just as we would do on any live event.
Scoring presented a set of unique problems. Like how you make a game stop exactly at the end of 30 or 40 seconds each time it is played? None of the game techs, game designers or manufactures could solve that one. This was the critical element because without an exact precise playing time for each contestant there would be NO CONTEST. We tried everything to access the game's scoring and make it stop, which worked on some but not all games.
We finally started looking at what was available to us in video to help us solve the dilemma. A brand new digital device was introduced that would freeze a frame of video on command. So all we had to do was design and build a clock that would trigger the freeze frame. We locked a second camera on the games score box. Then we connected a Radio Shack TRS-80 to our clock connected to the freeze frame box. At the precise end of the playing period the exact video frame would freeze and it would set off the buzzer too. Simple huh?
Starcade went on WTBS on Saturday mornings and found an audience. In fact, when cable penetration reached 40% of the US Nielsen started rating the shows. Starcade’s ratings went as high as a 7.8 nationally and that was good for our coverage. We went to NATPE (the TV broadcast convention) and met Ted Turner. He asked us if we would "strip" the show. We told him absolutely since this meant that it would show 5 days a week instead of once and that we could produce 26 weeks or 130 shows instead of 13. We shook hands with Ted and that sealed the deal, well almost.
Because of this commitment from Ted we could move ahead and really become independent TV producers. We also had Starcade on the air so it was not a problem to get contestants. In fact, we had over 5,000 applicants that came from all over the US. All of them had to pay their own way and for their stay in San Francisco. The prize brokers were beating down our doors with prizes from all over the country.
We only had two casualties. We lost a second prize round and we replaced Mark Richards because Turner felt that we should have a “name”. We auditioned several “game show host” and selected Geoff Edwards. Geoff was great to work with and really got into the games. We understand he is still an avid video game player.
The rest is history as they say, but everyday we hope along with millions of Starcaders that history just might repeat, and we’re ready.
We put www.starcade.tv up about 10 years ago and it has been quite successful. Each month we get hundreds of new Starcaders signing up from all over the world, most of which have never seen the show, but like to see the game movies and other history. Many more tell us they remember running home from school to watch and what fond memories they have. Over half of the contestants have checked in and let us know what they have been doing in the last 25 years. A lot of those tell us how being a Starcade Contestant helped to shape their lives in a positive way for which we are thankful.
Some just log onto www.starcade.tv and go to Jim’s Gallery to see the Maserati Racing Videos and photos of these beautiful cars, and some other pretty pictures.