TV POWW!: The Earliest Televised Video Game Competition From The 70s

Almost 40 years ago, at the very height of Discomania with a capital “D”, and only just a few months before Space Invaders would usher in  a national obsession with electronic games,  a forgotten yet  almost imperceptible ancestral link to competitive gaming occurred in Los Angeles, California. This momentary experiment, launched during the infancy of the video craze,  was no doubt one of the earliest progenitors of televised eSport. This event was nationally broadcasted on a syndicated television network before a live audience, using live players…in 1978 and the show lasted until 1986, and in Europe and Australia until 1992. This was before the home computer craze, before modems connected citizens from sea to shining sea, before anyone ever envisioned the internet.

No, I’m not kidding you.

Check out this clip that aired in Chicago in 1979:

Or this one from Los Angles also from 1979:

Or even this one from Tennessee:

Let me introduce you to TV POWWW! a televised 70s and 80s gaming show which allowed players to compete on video games for prizes live before a television audience using nothing but their telephone landline.  Players called in and yelled “POW!” to shoot at a video game target and their gameplay was broadcasted live on TV.  In fact as far as I can tell TV POWW! is the earliest –if not the first time– video game competitions were televised live in North America.

pow tv

So how did this all happen? Well, to be honest the details are a bit murky  but, believe it or not, the idea for the TV show came about after two television executives spent a weekend doing something I would’ve never expected them to be doing…playing video games.

I’m not sure which video game system they were playing  -some say it was  a Magnavox Odyssey– but sometime during the early summer of 1977, back when game shows were as numerous as reality TV shows are today, two executives sat around brainstorming how to create something fresh, something new, something that had never been done before.

In hindsight, it  was probably only a matter of time before some executive with his finger on the pulse of the latest crazes figured out that the newest sensation, video games would make good televised entertainment. Home gaming consoles were just starting to gain momentum and everyone, including a guy who’d spent his childhood in and out of amusement arcades, had an idea just how it was all going to fit together. Just about everyone in America had a television, and just about ever kid and teen in America loved video games. A light bulb went off in his head and, regardless of the obstacles that stood in his way, one guy made it all happen.

marvin kempnerThat man was Florida game show producer and syndicator, Marvin Kempner,  son of an arcade owner/coin op king and undoubtedly an unsung pioneer of eSport, who was pitched the idea of a 30-minute game show  by a couple of radio disc jockeys (DJs) in the Spring of 1977.

The two DJs envisioned a show where celebrities could compete in a studio against members of the audience on a Magnavox Odyssey.  In fact, the DJs already had a commitment from Magnovox under their wing when they approached Kempner. They only  needed a television producer to market it for syndication and get on the air. Kempner liked the idea but still wasn’t sure how to work out all the details. So he spoke with his peers in the field.

Bob Shanks,  then vice-president of programming for ABC,  was interested in the idea  but felt that, since the current market was already over-saturated with game shows, a shorter commercial-break stint,  like “Dialing For Dollars“, would be more successful. Dialing for Dollars would indeed be the template from which TV POWWW! would be based on.

Shanks envisioned callers being able to control the Magnovox Odyssey from the phone line but since voice-activation was just in its genesis some hocus pocus would have to be used to create the illusion that the system was voice-activated.  Magnovox immediately vanishes from the rest of the story.

fdb4414a76ab749824400bfc6dacf4d6Now whether or not Magnovox reneged on the deal because they didn’t want their product being associated with something as cheezy as Dialing For Dollars is something we will never know. However, internet rumors and piecemeal information allege that executives at Magnovox, keen on getting some high-profile advertisement at a reduced rate from ABC, reasoned that since video games console systems were a very new medium and not every household had one, there was no way this video game show was going to get off the ground easily unless advertising made the Magnovox Odyssey something every household had.   They do have a point  -if this rumor is true. As a solution to the problem Magnovox allegedly tried to cut an aggressive deal with ABC for commercial time to advertise their product during prime-time before each episode of this new “gaming show” but ABC declined because Magnovox’s terms were too high. Who knows? But it’s a good story. Frankly it kind of reads like an urban legend.

In the end, Magnovox, frustrated by something, walked away.  What that something really was we’ll probably never know for sure. For awhile the concept of a video game televised competition  hung in the balance. But Kempner, convinced that the concept could work, pressed on.

fairchild-channel-fNow, to make a very long story short, Kempner contacted Fairchild Semiconductor, the company who created the Fairchild Channel F home video game system and struck up a deal; Fairchild would create a specialized unit just for TV to landline video game competition that worked with voice-activation and the executives would guarantee that the Fairchild Channel F who become that standard system for the program.  Fairchild would also create specialized games simplified just for TV broadcast competition; i.e shorter duration, rudimentary targeting, etc. It all seemed to be coming together and everyone was happy….except one thing. When it came time to test the system out, lo and behold, it just didn’t work right and especially with calls trying to sync in realtime from one coastline to another.  The lag was terrible. something 3-4 seconds off.  Nonetheless, Kempner was dead set on making this deal work. But how?

An easy fix came just in time for a demonstration before prospective buyers of the show. It was clear that the voice activation wasn’t going to work. So here’s what was done:

Two 21-inch TV screens were set up with two phone lines; one going to host and one going to a stage hand who held the controller to the Fairchild F out of sight. One exec acted as the host as another called in on a phone as a player. The host instructed the “caller” to yell “Pow!” when he wanted to fire a shot, and the stage hand pressed the button on the controller, giving the illusion to the prospective viewers/players that the gaming system was voice activated. The demonstration was a success and the show went on.

pow3
Illustration from Marvin Kepner’s book

On October 1st, 1978, KABC-TV Los Angeles, hosted by Regis Philbin, took TV POWWW! on the air for the first time.  This is the first known live video game competition ever broadcast on television in North America. Canada’s first time was in 1979 and used Mattel’s Intellivision instead of the Fairchild Channel F:

TV POWWW! went on to be syndicated on 79 stations in North America and broadcast in several foreign countries throughout The 80s. Each station’s interpretation of TV POWWW! was tailored made to each channel’s regional taste. Most were children’s shows but some were teen and young adult oriented as well.

TV POWW
Just three examples of the various ways TV POWWW! looked

So the next time you’re wondering just how eSports got started and where the absolute starting point of it is, don’t look to The 80s. The actual ignition point of the concept is in The late 60s and 70s  -even before TV POWWW! . The earliest history of eSport has no true “big bang theory” until 1997 with the game, Quake, but is, however, comprised of many little watershed moments that led up to it.

Even so, TV POWWW and Marvin A. Kempner are two of the earliest lost links to American televised video game competition which eventually evolved into eSport. They should be remembered for the influence they had. All influences to eSport are important and all should be accounted for.

Sources: Can’t Wait Til Monday Morning: Sydication In Broadcasting by Marvin A. Kempner (1998)

When The Future of TV Was a Youngster Yelling “Pow!” (New York Times, 2002)

 

 

 

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