In interviews, George Schlatter insists that the executives at NBC had told him to specifically create another half-hour show that would push the bounds of television, something progressive, provocative, very adult and controversial and highly inventive. Schlatter and partner Digby Wolfe spent all of 1968 working on a television show that would be more outrageous than their smash hit Laugh-In.
Schlatter and Wolfe knew they wanted to call the program Turn-On, and began developing it as a high concept show that would combine old-fashioned nonsensical burlesque comedy and then mix it heavily with modern topical humor. The real gimmick was split-second editing and super fast cuts. The editing on Turn-On made the same technique on Laugh-In look geriatric. Viewers had never seen anything remotely as wildly frenetic as this. One of the hottest topics of the day was talk of supercomputers. So it was decided that in a daringly original move, the television show would be both hosted and controlled by a supercomputer. Since this was 1968 and it wasn't possible for a computer to actually host a show, they built a plywood Hollywood-Style computer and brightly painted it and added lots of flashing lights. This computer was frequently shown in quick cuts at odd angles while the camera was zooming in and out and pulsating to loud semi- electronic go-go music - very much like early MTV videos, but over a decade before MTV even debuted.
At first, NBC turned the show down flat, claiming it was not funny. So Turn-On was offered to the first place network, CBS, who was riding high with old folks programming such as The Red Skelton Show, Here's Lucy, and Ed Sullivan. CBS executives returned the pilot show to George Schlatter with a scathing note stating that Turn-On, with its cuts and chops, moved too fast. CBS claimed viewing Turn-On actually physically disturbed their executives and test audiences, saying that any professional, quality program would move at a milder, slower pace with softer humor.
George Schlatter's pal Ed Friendly, who produced the pilot for Turn-On, approached Bristol-Myers to sponsor the show. They agreed and the whole package was presented to ABC. ABC, the third-rated network could afford to take chances with radical new shows. Here was a clone of another networks hit show and it already had a committed sponsor. ABC bought 18 episodes of Turn-On and even signed a contract that gave George Schlatter total creative freedom.
ABC then made the bizarre decision to set the debut date for Wednesday, February 5, 1969, in Peyton Place's time slot. The lead-in show would be Here Come the Brides and then after Turn-On would be the ABC Wednesday Night Movie. It was not exactly the perfect placement for a radical new youth program.
The ratings show that over 17 million viewers tuned-in to Turn-On, but by and large the majority didn't like what they saw. By the next day most viewers claim to have seen sights and heard sounds that were far worse than anything that was actually broadcast.
They saw guest host Tim Conway, who quickly turned the show over to 'Computer Control.' They saw a fast string of burlesque-style blackout sketches like the ones on Laugh-In, but far far spicier. The first sketch had a gorgeous blond about to be shot by a firing squad, who is informed that though it may be unorthodox, the men in the firing squad have one last request? The next bit they saw was about a talking vending machine that dispensed birth control pills.
They saw non-sequitur catch phrases dancing for no reason across the bottom of their TV screens. Things like "Attention, this is an important announcement: The Amsterdam levee is a dyke!!"
For two whole minutes, they saw Tim Conway and Bonnie Boland (one of the "regular cast") mugging the camera and making bizarre faces while above their heads the giant word SEX kept flashing.
They saw an endless string of outrageous sights, but what a 1960's audience found most disturbing was the way this humor was presented. Each bit was backed by strange unfamiliar, futuristic, threatening music. The audience was bombarded with a barrage of words, sounds, images, animations and tasteless jokes. It all made many Americans wonder just what pharmaceuticals sponsor Bristol-Myers was feeding to the show's writers.
Many of those 17 million viewers did far more than simply turn-off Turn-On. Before the show had even ended they began phoning their local stations as well as ABC; they wrote letters to their local station; they wrote to their local paper and local governments; they wrote to the network, to Bristol-Myers and even to the Federal Communications Commission.
Halfway through the show, ABC's Philadelphia affiliate WFIL, pulled the plug on their switchboards because they couldn't handle the number of angry calls. Stations in Baltimore, Little Rock, and many other cities canceled the program even before the credits had stopped rolling.
Thursday morning, Turn-On was the talk of the nation. Every news station, every newspaper, it seemed every person had something to say about the show. ABC found that they had indeed created a national sensation, but it wasn't the pleasant sort of notoriety that provides free publicity and then goes away. This was an all out ground swell of anger that went from coast to coast. It's easy to imagine the executives at Bristol-Myers chugging down gallons of that pretty pink Pepto-Bismol. They severed all ties to the show before noon. By late afternoon NBC, who obviously couldn't resist kicking another network when they were down, issued a press release that stated they would never have broadcast anything in such bad taste as Turn-On. They also stated, "The pilot we saw and rejected was an Academy Award winner alongside the thing ABC put on the air."
Within days, seventy-five ABC affiliates told the network that they refused to air Turn-On ever again.
Not long after, ABC released a cryptic statement saying that "at this very moment, planning is being done determining future programming." In other words, Turn-On had been turned off... for good.
George Schlatter was furious and made this public statement: "With Turn-On, we had the most exciting 27 minute series on the air. If this show is too much for the network, then I look forward to a triumphant return of My Mother the Car."