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Turn-On is an ABC network sketch comedy series which aired for only one episode on February 5, 1969.
The premise of the show was that it was produced by a computer.
Distinguishing characteristics of the show were its use of the Moog synthesizer and lack of sets, except for a white backdrop.
Unlike "Laugh-In," the show "focused almost exclusively on sex as a comedic subject," using various rapid-fire jokes and risqué skits, but no laugh track.
The program was also filmed instead of presented live or on videotape.
Several of the jokes were presented with the screen divided into four squares resembling comic strip panels.
The production credits of the episode appeared after each commercial break, instead of conventionally at the beginning or end.
- Tim Conway (host)
- Teresa Graves
- Hamilton Camp
- Mel Stewart
- Chuck McCann
- Bonnie Boland
- Maxine Greene
- Ken Greenwald
- Debbie Macomber
- Maura McGiveney
- Robert Staats
The show was created by Ed Friendly and George Schlatter (the producers of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In").
Bristol-Myers contracted with them to develop the show, and provided it to ABC for a projected 13-week run after NBC and CBS rejected it.
A CBS official confessed, "It was so fast with the cuts and chops that some of our people actually got physically disturbed by it."
Production executive Digby Wolfe described it as a "visual, comedic, sensory assault involving animation, videotape, stop-action film, electronic distortion, computer graphics—even people."
Tim Conway has stated that the show was canceled midway through its only episode, so that the party that the cast and crew held for its premiere as the show aired across the United States also marked its cancellation.
Cleveland, Ohio's WEWS-TV did not return to the show after the first commercial break (after "15 minutes", according to Conway). The rest of the time slot was a black screen with live organ music, an emergency procedure that had not been used in over 20 years.
WEWS sent ABC network management an angry telegram: "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."
After seeing the episode, several stations in the later western time zones decided not to broadcast the show at all including Portland, Oregon's KATU, Seattle, Washington's KOMO-TV, and Denver, Colorado's KBTV (which stated: "We have decided, without hesitation, that it would be offensive to a major segment of the audience.")
Viewers of Little Rock, Arkansas's KATV, which disliked the show but decided to air it, "jam[med] the station's switchboard" with complaints.
Dallas, Texas ABC affiliate WFAA elected to air the show on the following Sunday night at 10:30 local time to an overwhelmingly negative response.
Both The New York Times and the Associated Press gave the show poor reviews.
An ABC executive stated that "creatively, Turn-On didn't work", comparing the show negatively to the comedy of Dean Martin, "Laugh-In" and the Smothers Brothers (which the executive described as "absolutely beyond belief ... awfully blue"), but were popular and less controversial because unlike Turn-On, "they're funny".
After the cancellation of "Turn On," TV Guide called the show "The biggest bomb of the season".
It stated that both CBS and NBC had rejected the show due to its perceived lack of quality, and that its sexual content was an important reason why viewers rejected the show.
The magazine quoted a source who lamented Turn-On's lack of a regular host or interlocutor: "(T)here wasn't any sort of identification with the audience -- just a bunch of strangers up there insulting everything you believe in."
In 2008, Conway said that the show was "way ahead of its time. I'm not sure even if you saw it today that maybe that time has also passed."
Bart Andrews, in his 1980 book "The Worst TV Shows Ever, stated that "Turn-On" was actually quite close to the original concept for "Laugh-In".
"It wasn't that it was a bad show, it was that it was an awkward show," concluded author Harlan Ellison, a fan of counter-cultural comedy and a TV critic for the Los Angeles Free Press in 1969.
On February 7, ABC announced that "Turn-On" would go on hiatus. Instead of the scheduled February 12 episode, the ABC "Wednesday Night Movie" (The Oscar, screenwritten by Ellison and itself a notorious flop) would start 30 minutes early; this announcement came after the following week's TV Guide went to press; it published a listing for the scheduled February 12 episode, which would have starred Robert Culp and then-wife France Nuyen as hosts.
Finally, on February 10, 1969, the show was formally canceled.
By this time, WEWS, KBTV, and KATV all told ABC that they would not air the show again; with several other affiliates having already turned it down, it no longer made financial sense to air it.
ABC received 369 calls of complaint during the show, compared to 20 supporting it. Network officials told the sponsor, Bristol-Myers that the show was unacceptable and ordered Schlatter & Friendly to end production.
Many assumed the show's title was itself an implicit reference to Timothy Leary's pro-drug maxim, "Turn on, tune in, drop out."
The network eventually replaced the show with a revival of "The King Family Show."
The controversy led ABC to reject a pilot written by Norman Lear, stating that the lead character was "foul-mouthed and bigoted", out of fear that it might anger its affiliates again. However, CBS liked it, picked it up as "All in the Family" and began airing it in 1971.
In 2002, the show was ranked at # 27 on TV Guide's "50 Worst TV Shows of All Time" list. "What Were They Thinking?: The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History ranked it at #25.