It’s natural to engage in discussions regarding which programs deserve consideration as the best show of all time. Although the Daily Planet is always willing to participate in that conversation, we find the search to discover television’s all-time worst program just as intriguing. Of course, determining what qualifies as bad television usually depends on what kind of criteria is being applied. Terrible scripts, bad acting, poor production values and ridiculous storylines can all contribute to making any program a candidate for worst show of all-time, a list that includes such turkeys as “Supertrain” (NBC 1979), “Your in the Picture” (CBS 1960), “The Brady Bunch Hour” (ABC 1976) and “My Mother the Car” (NBC 1965). But if the benchmark is lack of longevity, scathing reviews and extremely negative audience reaction, then the dubious honor of TV’s worst show ever could very well be “Turn-On,” which came and went very quickly in February, 1969.
In terms of ratings, ABC was a distant third to NBC and CBS throughout the late 1960’s, placing only three shows in the Neilson Ratings top 20 during the three seasons prior to the spring of 1969. The running gag was that if the U.S. government was really serious about ending the war in Viet Nam, they would place it on ABC’s primetime schedule, because then it would be over in 13 weeks. Badly in need of a hit, ABC turned to the production team of Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, the two men who had created the wildly successful sketch comedy show, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” for NBC. Friendly and Schlatter newest project, another comedy variety show called “Turn-On,” had already been rejected by CBS and NBC, but ABC, noting “Turn-On’s” similarities to “Laugh-In,” went ahead and penciled “Turn-On” onto its spring 1969 lineup. Although criticized as being an obvious rip-off of “Laugh-In,” “Turn-On had an entirely different look to it. Unlike “Laugh-In,” “Turn-On” did not attempt to simulate a live production, as most of its comic sequences were filmed and contained no laugh track. “Turn-On” was also without a permanent host, as its unique premise was that it was being produced by a computer, which was not the case. But the biggest departure from “Laugh-In,” or any other 1969 comedy came in the form of “Turn-On’s” content. Most of the humor revolved around sex. On Wednesday, February 5, 1969, “Turn-On” made its debut on ABC at 8:30 pm, with Tim Conway as guest host.
“Turn-On” was comprised of roughly two dozen skits, visual images and quickly executed political messages. One segment depicted a beautiful woman about to face a firing squad, with the commander explaining to the girl “this time, it’s we who have a final request.” Another sequence featured comic actor Chuck McCann ripping up and eating an adult men’s magazine. It was material like that caused Cleveland’s ABC affiliate to stop the showing of “Turn-On” 11 minutes into the program. ABC’s switchboard was lit up with hundreds of calls from viewers complaining about the show. The following day, “Turn-On” was savaged by terrible reviews from coast to coast, with some critics calling it offensive, while others just thought it was lousy. Although a second show, to be guest hosted by Robert Culp had already been filmed for a February 12th showing, ABC canceled “Turn-On” after its one and only episode. Because “Turn-On” did not even make it through its only telecast in some cities, and was not even aired in places like Denver, Portland and Seattle, it definitely earns the distinction as having the shortest run it network television history.
As far as “Turn-On” being the worst TV show of all time in terms of quality, that will always be a matter of opinion. As always, readers are invited to submit their own candidates for “worst television show ever.”
Notes: Because of the negative reaction to “Turn-On,” ABC became a bit gun-shy in terms of airing programs that could potentially be considered too provocative or controversial. It was this kind of caution that caused them to reject a sitcom that featured a bigoted lout as its main character. That program, which became “All in the Family,” was a monster hit for CBS.