A couple weeks ago, Twitch launched another of their marathon live streams, this one specifically featuring Starcade, the 1980’s arcade game show that used to run on TBS with the occasional syndication afterward over the past few decades. The stream did so well that Shout! Factory decided to load the complete library up for people to watch on VOD via Shout! Factory TV. Today we chat with the married co-creators behind the show, Jim Caruso and Mavis E. Arthur, about Starcade legacy and the history behind making it.
BC: Prior to Starcade, what kind of work had you been doing on television?
Jim: JM Production Company had been doing instructional and point of sale television productions, some utilizing interactive technology, for over 150 for clients including American President Lines, Princess Cruises, Bank of America, Electronic Data Systems, PolyGram, AT&T, Pacific Telesis, Bechtel Corp., Levi Strauss, Chevron USA, and ROLM Corp. We had just completed a series of videos for Electronic Data Systems called “Little Computers: See How They Run”, which featured “little” computers from Apple II, Commodore VIC-20 and the Tandy TRS-80. These shows made us aware of the advancing technology.
What was your experience like with arcades back in their heyday? Any particular favorites?
Mavis: Arcades were developing to provide a place where the games could be played. Nolan Bushnell, the guy who created Pong, had a chain of arcades he called Pizza Time Theatres. The first Starcade contestants came from these contests held at the Pizza Time arcades so I guess you could say Pizza Time Theatre arcades were our favorites.
How did the concept for the show come about and where did you get the name from?
Jim: We were laying on a beach in the Caribbean, having just completed the “Little Computer” series and we came up with the idea to do a game show where players would compete against each other on video arcade games. We decided it should be called Starcade–Star for the games that it would feature and Cade for the Arcades where they could be played–and Starcade was born.
What was it like pitching it to networks and how did you eventually land on TBS?
Mavis: It was impossible but that is not to say JM couldn’t do it. Once we had the idea for Starcade, we set out to develop a format that made it acceptable to the masses. Our initial thought was a competition among MANY players. But this was not acceptable to the programmers at the time–so what started as a competition between many players quickly became a competition between two players, or two teams of two players each. The Starcade you see today is the result of that effort to make it more acceptable. Remember this was the time that a lot of the audience was even afraid to touch a computer, much less a video game.
Jim: We heard Ted Turner was looking for a show that was friendly to video games for a new client he had called Parker Brothers. We made a cold call (meaning we did not know him) to the head of Program Development for Turner Program Services and pitched him on Starcade. This led to a trip to Atlanta to meet and discuss the show for WTBS: The Superstation. We showed them the last episode we had taped and left Atlanta with an order for 23 shows. That order would be followed by an order for 100 shows.
Why did the show have to go through two different pilots before getting a permanent gig in 1982?
Jim: Our initial thought was a competition among MANY players. The first Starcade pilot was taped in the summer of 1981 in San Francisco and it wasn’t easy. We set a pretty awesome task for ourselves. “Create an interesting show in which the viewers could vicariously participate with a subject that was virtually impossible to tape.” To make our task even more challenging, we added smoke, a visiting celebrity and a host who was not a TV host but rather a Hockey player—Mike Eruzione, the Captain of the gold medal winning US Olympic Hockey Team at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.
Mavis: The original Starcade pilot aired on several TV stations in California in September 1981 and became the prototype to sell the concept to NBC television, and later to Ted Turner (WTBS & CNN).
How was it putting the show together and making arcade games a compelling format?
Mavis: It was challenging but not impossible–we just did it.
I remember a couple of episodes appearing like they were put together in editing from a bunch of different cuts. Did you have a lot of technical issues with the machines or weird snafus happening a lot?
Mavis: YES! It was impossible. We had to devise a way to shoot the game screen without interfering with the player and without getting the game scan lines, capture the score when the time limit ran out (keeping in mind that the game would probably be adding to the score), and deal with the interference in the video caused by the neon Starcade sign. It was impossible but we did it anyway. We never edited the game play–once a player started playing we did not make any edits–what you see today is exactly the way it happened.
What were some of the memorable moments you had during the show’s run?
Mavis: Every taping was memorable. We remember ALL the contestants, every single one. We were continually amazed by the parents, what they were willing to do for their kids. It was inspiring.
What eventually led to TBS canceling the show? Did you ever try pitching it to a new network?
Jim: Starcade had good viewer numbers, I guess the Parker Brothers money ran out.
Mavis: Yes, we tried to get it back on the air–but when we were unsuccessful, we moved on to focus on the video game, our second show that focused on video games.
Considering the cable landscape at the time, what do you believe Starcade’s impact was on kids and teenage programming?
Jim: Starcade opened a whole new demographic. It proved teens had the money and were willing to spend it on something they thought was worthy.
What were your thoughts on Twitch wanting to do a live stream of all the episodes?
Jim: We thought it was an excellent way for Starcade to make a comeback. A good place to bring it back for all those Starcaders who have been waiting for years and to introduce the show to a whole new generation of players.
What do you hope the current generation of gamers take away from the show?
Mavis: We hope they will be energized by Starcade and it will put them in touch with the history of video games.