February 5: Turn-On Is Turned Off

turn-onLet’s take a moment to talk about failure. Now, we’ve come to associate failure with the concept of something not going according to plan. After all, the words “fail” and “failure” have become catchall internet slang for everything ranging from spelling mistakes to people injuring themselves foolishly. No, when I say let’s talk about failure, I mean capital F Failures; events where everything goes wrong in a fashion so disastrous that these events cannot help but become immortalized.

Now, I think it’s safe to say that the television business has as a rule seen more unsuccessful shows than hit shows. After all, Wikipedia not only has an article devoted to television shows that were canceled after one episode, they also have an article listing programs that were produced, promoted and scheduled, but then never aired a single episode. That’s all well and good, but today we celebrate an even more improbable broadcast achievement: Today is the 45th anniversary of the February 5, 1969 broadcast of the only episode of Turn-On, an ABC sketch comedy series that in most of the United States was canceled before the first episode ended!

Created by Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, the producers of the hit Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Turn-On was intended to be a new kind of sketch comedy series. The overall joke of Turn-On was that it was produced by a computer, which explained the show’s reliance on quick cuts and for the time unusual technical tricks. Turn-On production executive Digby Wolfe called the show a “visual, comedic, sensory assault involving animation, videotape, stop-action film, electronic distortion, computer graphics—even people.” Even the show’s set was a little avant-garde, as it was nothing but a plain white backdrop. As for the show’s comedy, the computer appeared to be fascinated by the concept of sex, as the show’s main comic focus was sex. In fact, there was even a long passage that consisted of guest host Tim Conway and cast member Bonnie Boland making goofy faces at the camera while the word “sex” flashed in the background.

Shockingly, a nation that had just elected Richard Nixon was not ready for Turn-On‘s juvenile sexual humor. The premier episode aired on the East Coast all the way through, but the real trouble started in the Midwest. WEWS in Cleveland, Ohio yanked the program off the air after just 11 minutes. The station even sent ABC a telegram saying “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.” As the broadcast time neared in the Mountain and Pacific time zones, most ABC affiliates had elected not to air Turn-On. That night, Conway and the cast were in Los Angeles having a premier party which quickly became a cancellation party when it became apparent that the show wouldn’t get a West Coast airing.

Turn-On was cancelled a few days later. One ABC executive would note that he didn’t think it was the show’s content that was the problem. As he explained, Dean Martin, Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers got away with material that was just as blue without complaints, the only difference was that unlike Turn-On, “they’re funny.” For the next few years, ABC would try to keep their affiliates happy by not picking up any shows that might be controversial. In 1971, Norman Lear would pitch a sit-com to ABC that featured a “foul-mouthed, and bigoted” lead character. ABC quickly passed, but CBS liked the idea and would go on to experience great success with Lear’s show, All In The Family.

So, let’s raise a glass to one of tv’s biggest failures with a cocktail simply called Failure. It’s an odd mix of brandy, Irish cream, triple sec and cream that’s not the best thing you’ll ever drink; but let’s be honest, a cocktail called Failure shouldn’t be great.


  • 1 ounce Brandy
  • 1 ounce Irish Cream
  • 3/4 ounce Triple Sec
  • 1/2 ounce cream

Shake with ice and strain into a champagne flute. Garnish with a sprig of mint and a cherry.

Tomorrow: Jumpman.


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