Turn-On is an American sketch comedy series that aired on ABC in February 1969. Only one episode was shown, leaving one episode unaired, and the show is considered one of the most infamous flops in TV history. While the first two episodes of the show are available for viewing at the Paley Center for Media in New York, the episodes cannot be viewed outside of the Center, thus making the episodes not fully available in the internet. There was footage that lasted 31 seconds which was aired on ABC News in the 1980s. This and a clip of a dancer generated using motion-capture and the Animac system (a precursor to the later Scanimate) are the only surviving pieces of footage.
Why It Really Needs To Be Turned-Off
- The sketches of the show were extremely stupid.
- It was so bad that some affiliates, notably WEWS-TV of Cleveland, Ohio; did not return to the show after the first commercial break.
- In the second episode, it even featured people wearing Ku Klux Klan ghost costumes which is considered extremely offensive to black people, Catholics and Jews.
- The whole premise of the show was that ABC literally had its script written by a computer at random.
- It is one of the very few TV shows to get cancelled after one episode.
- Despite being a spin-off of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In (which was also produced by Ed Friendly and George Schlatter), this show completely sucks the charm out of the source material.
Tim Conway has stated that Turn-On 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 the emergency procedure, a black screen with live organ music that had not been used in over 20 years. WEWS sent the 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 (now NBC affiliate KUSA); 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". He compared 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 Turn-On's cancellation 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: "There wasn't any sort of identification with the audience -- just a bunch of strangers up there insulting everything you believe in."
Conway said in 2008 that Turn-On 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, 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 Bristol-Myers ordered Schlatter and 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 Turn On 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. CBS liked the pilot, picked up it as All in the Family, and began airing it during the 1970-71 midseason.
In 2002, Turn-On was ranked number 27 on TV Guide's 50 Worst TV Shows of All Time. What Were They Thinking?: The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History ranked it at number 25.