When Cleveland turned off 'Turn-On'
Indians are on the moon!
Okay, not Indian people – but a lander and a rover from India touched down on the moon’s south pole this month. The victorious feeling must have matched what Americans were feeling in 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. We’ve all seen the black-and-white images that were beamed across the globe that July 20. Apparently, NASA accidentally erased the data tapes from that day, transmitted from the moon to what’s now Johnson Space Center.
Which brings to mind another piece of 1969 video, unearthed last month.
Before the multiverse of channels and streaming services we have today, the record for shortest-running program was held by “Turn-On.” On Feb. 5, 1969, ABC aired the first episode of the fast-paced half-hour comedy starting at 8:30 p.m. It didn’t even make it to 9 o'clock in some parts of the country.
You might be thinking, “Kabir, why are you telling us this?”
Well, first off — I can’t hear you. Second, the most notorious preemption was right here in Cleveland. Ironic, since the guest host was Tim Conway from Willoughby/Chagrin Falls. And Clevelander Mel Stewart was in the cast.
Some background for those who aren’t Googling “timconway” or “melstewart” right now: From 1968-70, the top-rated show on television was NBC’s “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” Essentially a vaudeville revue dressed up in psychedelia, it launched the careers of Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin, among many others. Flush with success, the show’s creators proposed an even faster-paced program. Yet both NBC and CBS passed on the concept.
ABC, a distant third, gave producer George Schlatter a 16-episode commitment for “Turn-On.” With nothing to lose and much to gain, the alphabet network put the show in the time slot for “Peyton Place,” a primetime soap that aired multiple times each week. It was so popular in its early years that it even inspired a parody, “Parma Place,” from Cleveland’s own Ghoulardi. By the spring of 1969, the show was winding down, and ABC used its Wednesday timeslot for “Turn-On.”
Viewed today, it feels like you're watching very short TikToks running back-to-back-to-back for a half hour. (I’m sure there are people who do just that, but I tend to avoid them.) There was no audience or laugh track, just bursts of audio from a Moog synthesizer to punctuate the action. The whole show was supposedly "programmed" by a computer and had no structure. The credits ran throughout the half-hour, popping up on screen between short sketches about love, money, war and race.
“As it came across the country, it was being canceled,” said Conway in 2008. “We had the coming out party and the cancellation party — very economical because it was all in one evening, and then gone.”
What happened? Producer George Schlatter, interviewed in 2010, blamed it on one network affiliate, Cleveland's WEWS.
“There was a guy in Cleveland who wanted ABC to keep ‘Peyton Place’ on the air,” he said. “He got on the phone and called all the affiliates and said, ‘This is terrible; we have to get rid of it.’”
That guy was Don Perris, the longtime general manager of WEWS who eventually rose to become president of the E.W. Scripps Company. His daughter, Kathy, doesn’t recall the “Turn-On” dust up, but said her father definitely had his finger on the pulse of what Cleveland audiences wanted.
Mark Rosenberger, chief content officer for Ideastream Public Media, worked with Perris in the 1980s and said he was widely respected throughout the company.
Perris followed up the preemption of “Turn-On” with an infamous telegram to ABC that read: “If your naughty little boys have to write dirty words on the walls, please don’t use our walls.” Kathy said that definitely sounds like her father’s quirky style of writing. Within days, ABC placed the show on hiatus, later buying out Schlatter's contract with a clause that he not rerun "Turn-On."
But my writing about the program today does not do it justice. Its reputation over the past 54 years largely sprang from the assumption that the jokes were all sexually suggestive. Schlatter has even repeatedly cited one sketch, in which a woman is frantically trying to get a birth control pill out of a vending machine, as being the most problematic.
Legendary writer, and Cleveland-native, Harlan Ellison was then reviewing television for the Los Angeles Free Press. He briefly mentioned “Turn-On” as ABC’s attempt to “cash in” on “Laugh-In.”
“It wasn't that it was a bad show, it was that it was an awkward show,” he wrote.
However, written descriptions are no longer necessary since the show’s lone episode — unseen outside of the Paley Center for Media — was uploaded to YouTube last month. A second, unaired episode with Robert Culp is also now online.
Gary Necessary, chief of operations for George Schlatter Productions, said the company is “not thrilled” that the episodes got out, but they’re not planning to have YouTube remove them.
“George has been very stringent with not letting the clips out,” he said. “We love YouTube and have several things there.”
That does not, however, include additional episodes of “Turn-On.” I’ve seen script pages for episode three listing Sebastian Cabot as host. I've also seen a telegram to affiliates touting Joey Heatherton for episode four, and the curators of a Monkees boxed set say episode five would have featured Davy Jones.
Whether those were completed is unconfirmed. And their names might mean bupkis to anyone actually young enough to spend a half-hour watching TikTok. Yet I can see a direct link from the fast pace of “Turn-On” right through early MTV and then into videos like the ones on social media which, fittingly, has resurrected the show after decades of obscurity.
Had “Turn-On” been stored by NASA, we might never have seen it again.
"The Cut" is featured in Ideastream Public Media's weekly newsletter, The Frequency Week in Review. To get The Frequency Week in Review, The Daily Frequency or any of our newsletters, sign up on Ideastream's newsletter subscription page.