Starcade DVD Collection #1

Review & Interview with the Producer by Jonathan Imberi

Starcade, the first video arcade game show, aired on television stations across the US in the early 1980's. It featured the hottest video games of the day, most of which are now considered the classics of the video game industry. Contestants on the show competed by answering trivia questions about video games and by playing video games against each other in a timed competition for the highest score, with the winner taking home his own arcade machine!

I wasn't sure what to expect when the DVD first arrived. I remember watching this show as a kid, but a lot of things found fun and entertaining as kids seems a little less appealing as adults. Upon first inspection the DVD Case looked professional and the DVD itself was also well designed with the label printed directly on the disc and not one of those paper labels you find on home production DVDs.

I was pretty excited about watching the show that very night, but then again I love video games. Now my wife does not necessarily share in this enthusiasm. She wasn't that crazy about the whole idea of watching a game show about video games, but after watching just the first episode she was the one suggesting we watch the next one.

From the opening credits which play as soon as the DVD is loaded to the menu which is reminiscent of the set itself, the mood is quickly set for the show ahead. The video and audio quality is excellent and the DVD menu is structured well and is easy to navigate.

Episode 19 is hosted by Mark Richards, the first of two Starcade hosts that appear on this DVD. The remaining episodes are hosted by Geoff Edwards. I really don't remember Mark Richards as the host, but I instantly took a liking to his style. It wasn't hard to fall back in line with Geoff though, as he was the host I remember from my childhood.

Each episode is packed with trivia and excitement! It provides the viewer with an up close and personal view of each game as it is being played. It was nice to see that the video game was fed directly into the camera rather than trying to take a shot from the outside and battle the reflection from the glass. These are details I did not remember from years ago, but something that impresses me now as I watch them again.

Collection #1 contains episodes 19, 59, 60, 62 and the 63 Invitational. The disc also contains behind the scenes with the crew. The only thing that left me a little disappointed was how fast I went through the DVD. With only 5 episodes it does not take you long to view them all. It would be nice to see future collections released with more episodes, maybe by season?

I would definitely recommend this DVD to anyone who considers them self a fan of video games! It sure to be fun for the whole family whether they play video games or not. 

Watching the DVD sparked my curiosity about Starcade and I wanted to find out a little more about the show and how it came to be. I decided to ask James R. Caruso, the Executive Producer of Starcade, if I could interview him for Coin-Op TV. James was happy to do the interview and was kind enough to answer a few questions I had for him. Included below is a transcript of the interview.

Who came up with the concept for the show, and how did that come about?

James: The first Starcade concept was to have a sport team approach, because we thought this would appeal to our audience. We went with the development of this idea and the first pilot was hosted by Mike Eurzione, Captain of the Olympic Hockey Team. There were 3 teams with 8 players on each team. Each team played a different video arcade game, Defender, Centipede, Pac-Man and the final game was Berzerk played by the team winners. The high scorer won and got to play our Star Larry Wilcox of Chips. The Starcade Video Game Champion was David Dyche, he and Larry played on the very first Donkey Kong Arcade Game. This episode was broadcast here in San Francisco on KRON, NBC at 6 PM Sunday, September 13, 1981. It had the highest ratings in the time period, and we thought we had a winner. The show played on several other stations in California, but we could not sell it to a major distributor or a network. It took a while but we finally realized that the sport team concept was wrong for video arcade games on TV. The other thing that held us up was all of the bad PR that the games were getting and believed by most people in the broadcast business, and most adults were afraid to even try playing one.

Mavis and I went back to our original concept and re-developed the format into about what you see today. We wrote and re-wrote the script until we were happy with it and started making calls. We landed a pitch meeting with the NBC VP, Phil Ross in charge of all the network owned and operated stations. Then the networks were only allowed five stations. Combined the O&O stations covered about 70% of the country. The top three were located in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. If Starcade could have the O&Os it would be easy to get the rest of the country.

Were Mark Richards & Geoff Edwards the only hosts, and why did you switch?

James: We took our script, set model and a lot of enthusiasm to NBC Headquarters in Burbank. We knew we had the guy high enough in the network when we sat down and he pushed a button on his desk to close his office door. From past experience we knew that most pitch meetings lasted about 38 seconds and you were out the same door that you just came through. Well, long story short, after two and a half hours he asked how we got into see him. We told him that we had called and made an appointment. He said he had a friend in his waiting room that needed a job, Alex Trebeck. He would buy the show if the 5 O&O station managers liked it. They didn't even though we used his friend in the second pilot and had his S&P VP from New York on the set during production who thought Starcade would be a winner. NBC passed and I had a NBC t-shirt made that I wore to most productions. It said NBC, DUMB AS A PEACOCK.

We found a Distributor that knew Sid Pike who was Chairman of The Board of the fledging Turner Program Services. They had Parker Bros. willing to sponsor a show, but didn’t have one that fit, until Starcade was presented to them. We negotiated a contract to produce 24 weekly shows for Turner. Ted met us at NATPE (National Association of Television Professionals and Executives) in Las Vegas. Sid introduced Mavis and I and after a little chitchat Ted asked us if we would strip the show for him and WTBS, that is make enough so they could show it daily. We shook hands all around and had a deal, their only demand was that we had to get a new host and that’s when Geoff started hosting. We went into production and stopped when we had 133 Starcade Episodes. These Starcade shows were Turner’s first syndication shows with WWF.

How many episodes were made and were there any filmed that never made it to TV?

James: The three pilots that we shot with Alex Trebek as the host. We edited one episode and it was shown to the NBC VP, OandO's and the Station Managers. The only others that have seen those pilots were the crew, video editor, NBC S&P, Alex, Ted Turner and staff, and Mavis and I.

Tell us what it was like to be the Executive Producer of Starcade.

James: The roles of Executive Producers were split between Mavis and myself. Most of the responsibilities at this level were our efforts were varied, developing the idea, writing a treatment and then raising the dollars to produce, talking a station, networks(s) into broadcasting the show, trying to get a syndicate, getting the set designed and built, finding studio to shoot in and equipment to shoot with. Develop the above the line and below the line production budgets. Selecting the host and other major support personnel. Oh, and sell commercials and get the prizes donated. And a million other things that it takes to produce a TV show.

The most important is writing the script and Mavis had that responsibility. She wrote not only all of the words that came out of Geoff and Kevin’s mouths. She wrote all of the V.O. game descriptions, she had to write all of the prize copy and the Hotlines. During the actual production she selected all of the prize round games and double checked that we were following the rules and kept track of the elapsed time of each act.

The Director is GOD, everyone reported to me, the creative staff, the writer, the performers, the technical crew, the grips, the gaffers and the goof offs all are the director’s responsibility. The performance of the host and his delivery of the script and the contestant’s performances are the major concerns of the Director. The overall pacing of the show is a major concern because a half hour show is only 22min. 38 seconds. The total number is 40-45 people all with ideas on how the show should be produced, written and directed.

The Director enforced all of the rules and regulations in the Starcade Bible. These are the rules of the game in order to keep Starcade fair for all the contestants and the producers out of jail. These rules also covered all of the Broadcaster’s (networks) Standard and Practices, the rules that they ran their business with.

We know that contestants ranged in age from 5 to 65 and that the average player was 14, but were the contestants all guys?

James: The average age was about 12 and about 25% of all contestants were females. This includes girl contestants, mothers, aunts and sisters that appeared on Starcade.

How were the contestants chosen?

James: We had contestant calls, on air, mail, word of mouth, etc. Each individual had to come to the San Francisco studios at the designated time. We interviewed each person that came where we gave them an initial screening for personality etc. Next everyone that came was invited to play the games for practice. We then grouped everyone into groups of about ten and had them play the games that were scheduled for the next production cycle. There were about 50 different games and we recorded their scores for a limited playing time. After that all the contestants went home to wait until we notified the individually whether they would appear on a show that was already scheduled for a specific day. We went through the scores to pair contestants that were more or less on the same level of ability. All contestants had to pay their own expenses to get to the studio, their hotel and meals if they did not live in the area. The only things that we were allowed to give them were the prizes they won and lunch on the day of production. This was enforced by S&P because it was part of Federal Law governing the production of all game shows.

Are there any interesting contestant stories? Did fights ever break out amongst contestants either on or off screen?

James: We only had one incident with a contestant and his father was a Beverly Hills Lawyer.
He thought he had won the Grand Prize when he saw his score on the screen of the game he was playing when the time was up. It was more than needed to win. It was close, but the score was below that needed when the computer said time had really expired and he lost. He and his father stayed overnight in San Francisco so they could be at the studio first thing the next morning and register their protest. We pulled the videotape, played it and it showed that when the timer sounded the score was actually below that needed to win, that was the end of that. Close, but no video game. We explained that the games kept scoring when the time ended and that we froze the screen on video at the exact end of the time period.

We had a Contestant ride the bus from Washington DC to San Francisco during a bus strike to try out. He arrived a day late with his grandmother and knocked on the office door about 8PM Sunday night, the day after the try outs and told us his story. They would have been here on time but a picket line in Chicago had prevented the bus from leaving for two days. We got them a free Hotel room and free food because they didn’t look like they had much money and let him try out the next day. Of course he was a good player so he made it. He had a dream of winning a Video Arcade Game so he could put it in a location and make enough money to go to college. When he came back for the show he beat his opponent, but did not score enough points to win the Grand Prize.

Overall we had a great group of contestant’s as you can see from those that have checked in the Contestant’s Gallery.

Was the winning contestant responsible for getting the arcade machine home, or was it delivered to his house? Were the machines set for free play, or unaltered production line model?

James: We paid for the shipping and set up if it was needed. All machines were drawn from regular production and were on free play as long as they were with us.

How many different games appeared on Starcade? Which ones debuted on Starcade?

James: About 150 appeared about 50 did not make it due to bad play or violence.

Most video arcade games premiered on Starcade so it’s difficult to pick out a few. Take a look at http://www.starcade.tv to see what we mean.

What kind of difficulties did you encounter while filming?

James: To get the show on we had three cameras on the floor, two on the games and about 6000 miles of cable feeding to the switcher and then to the videotape machines. The biggest problem that we had to solve on set was when we decided that neon would look great, it did. But, it caused static in the audio and the video and I swear the doorknobs. It was everywhere. We finally grounded everything to get rid of it. In the beginning there were so many problems with the games it was unbelievable. We finally got a great crew of game wranglers and a lot of help from the Manufactures, particularly Nintendo.

How large was the studio audience?

James: The average audience was about 75 per show. We just had a small area or we could have had many more.

The show ended in 1984 - Did the video game crash of the mid 80’s doom the show?

James: We have never seen the video game crash. Video games have continued on in one form or another since the 80's. We did see video arcades crash and many deserved to. Because it was mostly a cash business many of the operators, manufactures and the people that ran some of the companies got too greedy. They quit developing good arcade games that were fun to play and a challenge to the players. They were not fulfilling as they became more violent. The developers started putting the emphasis on home games and the manufactures started competing with themselves. Video games to day are as big or even bigger today that they were in the 80's, just most aren't as much fun to play as a real video arcade game.

Which sponsors and contestant prizes were your favorites?

James: I think some of my favorite prizes were The Bionic Chair, Mr. Disc (no bigger than a man’s shoe), White’s Metal Detector. Sponsors: Kellogg’s, Wrangler.

Are there any plans for future DVD collections?

James: We are working on it now. The distribution is the problem to recover the cost.

Thank you for sharing that with us James. You can find out more about Starcade at their web site: http://www.starcade.tv

This DVD gets my chomp of approval! Wocka! Wocka!

First Published April 2006