Turn-On: The Shortest American TV Show

In the late 1960’s the world was changing rapidly. Anti war protests, civil rights marches, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and sexual revolution were a huge part of what the decade represented.  Comedy was important to get us through these uncertain days.

Many comedians weren’t afraid to speak their mind, and present a more adult-oriented product, to go along with these revolutions.  As the times were changing, so was what was considered comedy.  

But was America ready for a half-hour of nothing but blue material?  Was it okay for a prime time show to be controversial? Was it okay to have a show break just about every rule of television production just to be edgy and original?  When it came to an experimental new sketch show named Turn-On, these questions were very quickly answered. This is the story of Turn-On, the shortest lived program in American television history.

Time to turn on…

Turn-On was an idea conceived by Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, the producers of the highly successful NBC sketch comedy series Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. The two were contacted by Bristol Myers to create a spiritual spinoff. This new show was to be similar in nature, but with more lascivious content.  Friendly and Schlatter presented the concept to NBC and CBS, but it was rejected by both networks. Third time was the charm though, as it was picked up by ABC.

The premise of Turn-On was simple in its complexity.  Viewers were led to believe that the show they were watching was being produced by a computer. All of the characters were artificial, performing inside of an artificial reality. As an example of the show’s racier content, the longest sketch of the first episode featured guest host Tim Conway and cast member Bonnie Boland making faces while the word SEX flashes on the screen. In another sketch, a woman is desperately trying to grab an item out of a vending machine, simply labeled “the pill.”

The show also contained many uses of “damn” and “hell” which was pretty raunchy for its time. Audiences were also upset by the computerized sound effects which defined the technology of the show. These effects were created with a Moog synthesizer. This was a fairly new technology at the time, and one certainly not used in conventional TV shows.

Unlike other comedy programs at that time, there was no laugh track for Turn-On.  Although commonly practiced and embraced today, this would have been different for viewers at the time who came to expect the standard practice of canned laughter during funny shows. Nevertheless, the show went on the air Wednesday, February 5, 1969, at 8:30 pm.

And then…

Within minutes after the show’s initial airing, Turn-On began its sudden and absolute downfall.

Just as quickly as the show started, hundreds of angry calls lit up the switchboard at ABC in New York City. Complaints about the content of the show swamped the operators, demanding the show be taken off immediately. Dozens of others were calling in to complain that the nighttime soap opera Peyton Place was being preempted for Turn-On. Thus, people were afraid they would miss their nightly story. With these complaints far outweighing the positive calls, ABC made the unprecedented decision to end the show before it even completed running its debut episode.

Turn-On was being turned off almost as quickly as it began.  The immediate cancellation of the show in New York began trickling across the country. ABC affiliates were following suit and pulling the program as it aired. WEWS, the ABC affiliate in Cleveland allowed the show to run into the first commercial, and then never came back. Turn-On had been replaced by emergency organ music, a back-up procedure the station hadn’t used in twenty years. The station sent a telegram to the ABC network and the message was short and simple.  “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.”

Some affiliates still aired the show, but not in prime time.  WFAA in Dallas simply moved the one episode show to a later time slot. Although the station still received hundreds of complaints; just later in the day. By the time the time slot reached the west coast, Turn-On was never aired at all.  

KBTV in Denver declared that they would not air the show stating, “We have decided, without hesitation, that it would be offensive to a major segment of the audience.”

Within minutes of its first airing, ABC placed the show on hiatus. The show was then officially cancelled on February 10, 1969, a mere five days after its launch fiasco.  

A second episode hosted by Robert Culp and France Nuyen was listed in TV guide, but never aired. Instead, the 1966 film The Oscar ran 30 minutes early to fill the empty space. Bristol Myers was thereafter informed by the network that the show was finished, and production on Turn-On was immediately ceased. The story of Turn-On ended almost as quickly as it began. Guest host Tim Conway commented that it was the only show in history to have its premiere and cancellation parties held at the same time.

What happened?

So what went wrong with Turn-On?  Was the sexual content too much for most viewers? Or was the show’s quick, choppy editing too much ahead of its time?  Maybe it was the experimental production values? Or was it simply bad luck?  In the end, none of these things were able to attract a hip audience to Tuesday nights at 8:30pm.

As an example, Saturday Night Live was a topical 70’s sketch show that was also ahead of its time. But unlike Turn-On, which aired in prime time, SNL aired after the late news and was able to strike a nerve with younger skewing demographics. The experimental production values were also quite a problem. While the overall appearance of the show was innovative, it was also extremely jarring to the casual viewer. An unnamed CBS official claimed Turn-On  “…was so fast with the cuts and chops that some of our people actually got physically disturbed by it.” 

Likewise, an unnamed ABC official said quote “Let’s face it.  Creatively, Turn-On didn’t work.”

Of course, the sexual content was also a red flag for many viewers.  Although it is very much debatable that was the entire reason behind the cancellation.  The logical explanation is that the show was simply too tough to watch.

George Schlatter defended his creation, saying “Turn-On was no more outrageous in its bad taste than anything that’s been on Laugh-In or “Dean Martin.” It was the form that was distracting. This kind of show…is bound to fuffle a few feathers.”

Nevertheless, Turn-On would never seen again.  That is, until approximately twenty seconds of video surfaced from the show’s never-aired second episode. This footage was used in an early 1990’s news magazine story, and stood as the only public release of Turn-On.  Although there are very limited places in which one can watch the first two episodes, a full-scale release of the show in its entirety is highly unlikely.

My Take

Turn-On was a good idea with a salable premise that was executed awkwardly. It was a creative show with hot topics, a relevant cast, and strong sponsorship.  But audiences who tuned in simply rejected it. In my opinion, the jarring camera shots, choppy editing, and synthesizer sound effects just didn’t translate to the ABC prime-time lineup.  Plus, sexual content is always going to be a tall hurdle to jump. Especially in the 1960’s, only a few years removed from “wholesome” shows like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Thus, as of 2020, 51 years after its premiere and cancellation, Turn-On stands as the shortest lived program in American TV history.

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