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“The Cut” is a weekly reporters notebook-type essay by an Ideastream Public Media content creator, reflecting on the news and on life in Northeast Ohio. What exactly does “The Cut” mean? It's a throwback to the old days of using a razor blade to cut analog tape. In radio lingo, we refer to sound bites as “cuts.” So think of these behind-the-scene essays as “cuts” from Ideastream's producers.

When Cleveland turned off 'Turn-On'

Four frames: Tim Conway, from Willoughby and Chagrin Falls, in the upper left corner. Clevelander Mel Stewart in the upper right corner. Tim Conway adjusting his necktie against a yellow curtain in the bottom left corner. The Words "Turn-On" in green, blue and red in the bottom right corner.
George Schlatter Productions
Tim Conway, from Willoughby and Chagrin Falls, hosted the only episode of "Turn-On" to actually air in 1969. Clevelander Mel Stewart (right) was in the cast and would later find fame as Henry Jefferson on "All In the Family."

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 blames 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." It's all in his new book, “Still Laughing: A Life in Comedy.”

"I just wish I'd had a chance to meet him before he died," Schlatter said. "He sure made us famous by making us infamous. The jokes were not dirty, they were not provocative. They were bawdy. They were unusual."

Schlatter said the cancellation even led “Laugh-In” writers to switch to Cleveland jokes once NBC suggested fewer ethnic jokes on the show.

“I immediately wanted to do jokes about Cleveland,” he said. “What is funny about Cleveland? I don't know. I've never been to Cleveland.”

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 was “not thrilled” when the episodes got out.

“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.” Schlatter said Sebastian Cabot, Joey Heatherton and Davy Jones were slated for the next, never-filmed episodes.

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.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.