Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The (Almost) Untold Story of TV POWWW - The Original(??) Video Game TV Game Show


Back in December of 2012 I did a blog post on Starcade, the syndicated video game game show that originally aired from 1982 to 1984. Starcade, however, was not the first syndicated game show involving video games. Back in 1978, a program called TV POWWW started appearing on TV stations across the country (and, eventually, around the world). And it not only featured video games, but it was interactive, with viewers playing live over the telephone (don’t get too excited, it’s not quite what you may be thinking). I don't know if it was the first television video game game show, and some might quibble with calling it a "game show" at all but for its time, it was quite innovative. Surprisingly, I had never heard of the program until recently when I stumbled across a web page that made mention of it. I immediately tried to find out more about it, only to discover that the information on the web is scant. A little digging, however, unearthed a host of new sources information (chief among them a book by Marvin Kempner). While TV POWWW had nothing to do with arcade video games, I thought I'd share the information anyway.

Marvin Kempner

The driving force behind the creation of TV POWWW was Marvin A. Kempner, founder of the syndication firm M.A. Kempner Inc. While Kempner didn't have a direct connection to the coin-op industry, his father did, having been partners in a chain of arcades with Adolph Zukor, who later went on to form his own movie studio (as did a number of other arcade owners) - Paramount. Kempner's work in syndication had started after World War II when he syndicated radio programs like Murder at Midnight and The Tommy Dorsey Show. In a career that spanned six decades, Kempner worked for a number of companies and was involved with a handful of significant firsts. Jingl-Library was a library of advertising jingles created in the late 1940s and sold to radio stations across the country (it was sold to NBC in 1953). Colonel Bleep was a cartoon in which an alien from the planet Futura protected the Earth with the help of his two deputies (the cowboy puppet Squeek and a caveman named Scratch). Running from 1957 to 1960, it was the first color cartoon produced for television. While Kempner helped syndicate the program, it was filmed by Soundac of Miami, an early animation studio. In 1966, Kempner (then working for Mark Century Sales Corp) began selling another Soundac creation called Colorskope - a library of animated opening and closing segments that could be customized for specific television stations for use in news programs, sports reports, movies , and other programming (they also produced a follow-up called Commercialskope that consisted of customized animated commercials). Kempner was also part owner of WINE radio in Buffalo (one innovative promotion consisted of sending live homing pigeons to 50 of the area's top advertisers with a note instructing them to fill out a form and return it, via pigeon express). Kempner was no stranger to game shows either.
Ad for Musical Tune-O, June 1, 1950
In the early 1950s he had syndicated a radio program called Musical Tune-O. Customers would visit participating grocery stores where they would obtain a bingo card with a numbered list of 250 instrumental tunes and a bingo grid with 25 numbers (as well, of course, as advertising for the store in question). When they tuned in to the program, a selection would be played. The customer then had to identify the tune and, if they had that number on their card, claim the appropriate box. Once a customer got five numbers in a row, or filled in the four corners of the grid, they would call the radio station to claim a prize.
Ad for Dollar Derby, January 31, 1952
In 1952, Kempner syndicated Dollar Derby (“the original TV auction”) in which players would receive paper "money" after purchasing items from participating supermarkets then tune in and bid on items using the fake money (Kempner claims the show helped make 7-11 famous in Texas). By the 1970s, Kempner had formed his own company called M.A. Kempner Inc. and the innovations continued. In 1973, Kempner syndicated The Jane Chastain Show making Chastain the first nationally syndicated female sportscaster in the country (in 1974 she became the first female NFL announcer). Another Kempner innovation was Time Capsule library of stock footage, cataloged and indexed by subject, that TV stations could use to supplement news stories.

The Creation of TV POWWW

In the spring of 1977, two men (a DJ and a radio program director) approached Kempner with the idea for a new half-hour television game show that involved audience members playing home video games against a celebrity opponent[1].The pair had a commitment from Magnavox (who was then working on the Odyssey 2) for $200,000-250,000 to produce a pilot. The two hooked up a video game console to a television and demonstrated the unit for Kempner[2]. Intrigued, Kempner made an appointment with Phil Boyer, Vice President of Programming for ABC and spent the weekend playing video games[3].

            Walking into Boyer's office, video game console under his arm, Kempner set up the unit and described the concept to Boyer, who interested immediately, noting that he played arcade games every night while waiting for his train at Penn Station. While Boyer loved the concept, he didn't like the format. Selling a half-hour program was an increasingly difficult prospect and the airwaves were already flooded with game shows. Instead, Boyer wanted to create a "Dialing For Dollars" of the eighties (the television program in which the host would call viewers at home and award cash prizes if they could give the proper password).  Instead of creating a half-hour show with a live audience, Boyer suggested a short call-in program that stations could insert into their local broadcast schedules whenever they wanted. Kempner agreed and took Boyer's suggestion back to the clients. The two ignored Boyer and told Kempner they were going ahead with the half-hour format and asked if he still wanted in. Kempner did and in August, a pilot was produced. Prior to the filming, Kempner met with the Magnavox attorney and was surprised when they seemed uninterested in finalizing the deal. He was even more surprised when he tried to chat with the attorney and Magnavox’s VP on the morning of the shoot and they not only seemed uninterested, but didn't even bother to ask if he wanted a ride to the studio. He soon realized that he had been cut out of the deal.

Fairchild Gets Involved

Furious, Kempner wrote a letter to Wilfred Corrigan, president of Fairchild Camera and Instrument (which had released its Channel F programmable console in November, 1976), on September 6, describing his concept for a game show in which viewers would play games on air and asking if Fairchild could supply them with a game system and develop voice recognition hardware that would allow players to control the game over a telephone line. He wrote a similar letter to Atari. A few days later, Fairchild called back and Kempner made an appointment with John Donatoni, marketing director of Fairchild's video game division (Atari never responded).

            During the meeting, Fairchild engineers assured Kempner that they could create his voice activation box. Kempner then asked if they could create hardware that would take the game off the front of the picture tube and broadcast it. Again they said yes, but noted that it would take six months to complete. Kempner and Fairchild quickly signed a contract in which Fairchild would supply Kempner with custom Channel F consoles (at a cost of $2500 apiece) as well as custom game cartridges. The T-shaped custom cartridges were about 3 times larger than the normal cartridges and were also usually simplified for television.

Finding a Market
This Ad For TV POWWW appeared in the September 15, 1978 issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Note that TV POWWW appeared as part of the show Zap!

            Returning home, Kempner called Phil Boyer who reiterated that ABC wanted first refusal rights on the program for the network’s “O and Os’ (owned and operated stations). He then called Al Flanagan, President of Combined Communications in Denver, and set up a meeting at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas where he could demonstrate his system to a roomful of executives and sales staff. With the final system still in development, Kempner would have to fake it. He set up a pair 21" TVs on stage and connected them to a standard Channel F unit with a shooting gallery cartridge. Next to each TV was a telephone that wasn't connected to anything. As the demo started, Kempner called two executives to the stage and described his idea, which he was temporarily calling "TV POWWW" (a name he didn't particularly care for). He started up the game, then instructed the execs to yell "POW!" into their dead phones when they wanted to take a shot (the Fairchild engineers had told him that they would need to use a strong sound for the voice activation to work). After each "POW!" Kempner would press the buttons on his controller. Despite the somewhat crude demo, according to Kempner "all hell broke loose". Al Flanagan leapt to the stage and loudly demanded an option for all seven of the TV stations he owned. Kempner told him that they did not give options, but instead offered first refusal rights.

            Kempner next visited KABC in Los Angeles (the most profitable TV station in the country), where he met with head of programming John Goldhammer, who loved the idea and set up a five-minute meeting with GM John Severino. Instead of five minutes, Severino spent an hour playing with the Channel F and told Kempner he was going to make a million dollars with TV POWWW. Certain that the final system would be ready by March, 1978, Kempner returned to Goldhammer and suggested that he allow Kempner to test the system at the NATPE (National Association of Television Programming Executives) Convention in April. Goldhammer agreed, but suggested that he also demonstrate the system live on  A.M. Los Angeles, the popular morning program hosted by Regis Philbin and Sarah Purcell (who later went on to national fame as co-host of Real People). When April rolled around, the Fairchild engineers were still hard at work on the new system. At 7 AM the Monday before the convention (which started on Friday), Kempner and the engineers set up their equipment at KABC for A.M. Los Angeles only to find that the voice activation didn't work. Despite furious efforts, they had to cancel the appearance at 8:45. Tuesday was more of the same, as was Wednesday. Finally, on Thursday, they got the system to work and demoed it on the air. They did the same on Friday and KABC's phone lines were clogged with people hoping to play the new game. After the show ended, Kempner made his way to the convention and began a pre-show sales meeting in his hotel suite. In the middle of the meeting, Al Flanagan burst in and, in front of the stunned salesmen, offered to buy TV POWWW for all his stations. News of the deal spread across the convention floor like wildfire and before long, program directors and executives were lining up to buy the show for their stations. Each of them paid a weekly fee, plus $5,000 for the modified Channel F unit. Meanwhile, Magnavox was offering its video game show, but (much to Kempner’s delight) no one was interested and it was never produced.

            Kempner was not out of the woods yet, however. The show was scheduled to be available on September 1 and Fairchild still hadn't worked out all the kinks. In July, Kempner decided he needed someone of his own to help get things in order and hired Bob Elder, an overweight and alcoholic (though brilliant), engineer in his early 40s. Elder quickly fixed a number of issues but there were others. Realizing he would never be ready for the September 1 date, Kempner called his stations and announced that he was changing the rollout to October 1. Thankfully, Kempner met the new date and TV POWWW went on as scheduled. It was an instant success.

Playing the Game

            Looking back from the 21st century, the "interactivity" of TV POWWW seems absurdly primitive. Rather than playing games directly, viewers would contact the station (or, more often, the station would contact them) and watch the game on their television set, calling out "Pow!" (or is that "Powww!"?) whenever they wanted to perform an action like firing an onscreen gun. In most cases, it seems, interested viewers would submit their names and phone numbers (with KABC they did so via postcards). Stations would insert the brief segments wherever they wanted. Denver added it to the beginning of The Six Million Dollar Man. Others added it to local news or morning programs. Most commonly, however, stations would add it to their children's programming (WGN in Chicago, for instance, presented it as part of Bozo’s Circus while in Raleigh it was part of a show called Barney’s Army). While some stations initially had a call-in program, many switched to a call-out method, and not always voluntarily. KSL in Salt Lake City, for example, was forced by the phone company to switch to call-outs after the demand for the program knocked out phone service in seven states Not all of the viewers played fair. Some would yell out "POWPOWPOWPOWPOWPOW" over and over rather than trying to time their shots. For WPIX, Channel 11 in New York, players shouted "PIX" instead of "POW" and the show was called TV PIXXX. According to some sources, WPIX had technicians in the control room pressing the controller button rather than using the voice activation system[4].

Goodbye Fairchild, Hello Mattel

Upon its debut in 1978, TV POWWW was an immediate hit. Almost as soon as it got started, however, the show was hit by a potential setback. In January of 1979, Kempner attended the CES in Las Vegas. Just before they let for the show, Fairchild contacted them and told them to stop by the Fairchild booth as soon as they arrived. They did so, and a meeting was arranged. Thinking nothing of it, the Kempner reps wandered the convention floor until the meeting started. At the meeting, Fairchild dropped a bombshell, announcing that they were going out of business (later that year, they were acquired by Schlumberger Ltd.) Genuinely apologetic, Fairchild offered to send Kempner whatever equipment they had on hand so that they could continue to build units. They also suggested that Kempner pay a visit to the Mattel booth, where they were displaying a new video game console of their own called Intellivision. Despair turned to elation when the Kempner team got a look at the Mattel display and saw that the Intellivision’s graphics far outstripped those of the aging Channel F. That afternoon, Marvin Kempner rushed back to the hotel, called Mattel, and tried to arrange a meeting with the head of the video game division, only to be told that no one was available. As the show was ending, he finally contacted Ed Krakauer, Senior VP of the electronics division and talked him into squeezing a 10-minute meeting into his lunch hour. Halfway through the meeting, Krakauer leapt from his seat and shut the TV off. He was already sold. The ten minute meeting ended up lasting three days. Mattel eagerly got on board, even offering to supply Kempner with a chip they were having trouble getting. It looked like a match made in heaven. Looks, however, can be deceiving. While Mattel initially supplied Kempner with a number of modified games, it eventually became apparent that they were losing interest in video game consoles as they focused on turning Intellivision into a bargain basement home computer with products like the ill-fated Keyboard Component. In addition (at least according to Kempner) Ed Krakauer continually tried to change the conditions of their deal or made promises that he never kept. At one point Metromedia of Los Angeles contacted Kempner about acquiring the rights to a half-hour prime time show on KTTV in which members of a live studio audience would square off against contestants on the phone. Jack Clark, host of the game show The Cross-Wits had signed on as emcee. The show was produced, but ran for just 13 weeks when Mattel proved unable (or willing) to supply Kempner with new games and by the late-1980s, it seems that TV POWWW had largely disappeared.
An ad for the KTTV version of the show, from Kempner's book

Looking Back

TV POWWW seems to be little remembered today – at least by those who grew up after it faded from the scene. It draws scant mention in video game, or television, history. In its day, however, it was quite popular, and surprisingly innovative. At its peak, over 100 stations carried the program and Kempner eventually syndicated the show in Europe, Asia, and Australia. While Marvin Kempner places much of the blame for the show’s untimely demise on Fairchild and Mattel’s lack of vision, it seems unlikely that the game could have lasted much longer than it did, even if those companies had stood behind it, especially given the video game crash and the primitive (by later standards) technology. When Nintendo hit it big with the NES, Kempner paid a visit to its Seattle headquarters to try and revive the program. Nintendo turned him down immediately (as did Sega sometime later). While TV POWWW may not have lasted, M.A. Kempner Inc. did, as did voice recognition technology. Kempner followed up with a number of products using the technology. Telephone Poll allowed companies to conduct automatic telephone surveys, using a synthesized voice to ask callers questions with a binary answer (yes/no, true/false, like/dislike, agree/disagree, for/against, or a/b). They followed up with the ESCAPE 600 (Electronic Synthesized Computerized Automatic Polling Equipment), which could dial numbers at random, had a customizable voice, and could detect busy signals, hang-ups, and pranksters (the Republican Party successfully used it to drum up support for midterm elections in Florida via the computerized voice of Ronald Reagan himself). How long did TV POWWW last? It’s hard to say, given the lack of solid info. It ran until at least 1983 in various US markets and Kempner claims that it lasted 12 years overall. However long it lasted, TV POWWW stands as an interesting sidelight to the history of video games and one that deserves to be better known.

Postscript – Zap???

The Wikipedia article on TV POWWW ends with the following intriguing claim: “Zap aired in the mornings from 1978-1979 on Cleveland, Ohio NBC Station WKYC which had a feature similar to TV POWWW.”  Another interactive game show featuring video games that appeared at the same time, and maybe even preceded TV POWWW? Intriguing indeed. Or it would be, if it were actually true. Zap actually did feature a segment that was “similar” to TV POWWW. In fact, it was identical to TV POWWW. In fact, it WAS TV POWWW. Zap was a morning talk/news show hosted by Bob Zappe that ran on WKYC until it was cancelled in early 1979. As the above ad makes clear, Zap actually featured TV POWWW itself, not a “similar” program. Oh well, for a while there, Wikipedia really had me going.   


The majority of the above info came from Marvin Kempner’s 1998 book Can’t Wait Till Monday Morning: Syndication in Broadcasting (http://www.amazon.com/Cant-Wait-Til-Monday-Morning/dp/0944957730). In fact, it is largely a paraphrase of the chapter in his book dealing with TV POWWW.
Some information was taken from an article on Kempner from the February 6, 1984 issue of Television/Radio Age.
Other info was taken from various web sources

[1] From Kempner's book, it is unclear if this was the original concept. He initially only says that the two brought him an idea for a show using video games and notes that while playing games that weekend he wondered "…
[2] Kempner does not clearly specify what kind of system this was. It seems too early to have been an Odyssey 2 (which, as he indicates, was a year away from production). From Kempner's description, it may have been a Fairchild Channel F.
[3] Once again, Kempner's account is a bit confusing and he doesn't specify what game he played. He mentions that Atari and Fairchild had already released home video game systems. After describing his weekend playing games, he notes "I had read much about Atari, and now had played several of their games...” From this, it sounds like he was talking the Atari 2600. The 2600, however, would not be released until September, 1977.
[4] The Wikipedia article on TV POWWW makes this claim, citing as the source the following article (http://archive.today/sRxpa) which drew its information from a 2008 WPIX retrospective (which can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJN9eM84Rq8). While the same claim has been made on other websites, drawing some to conclude that the program never used voice activation, Kempner’s own account makes it clear that this is not the case (unless he is an inveterate liar). Perhaps some stations were forced to bypass the voice activation technology due to its unreliability, or perhaps it only worked with the Channel F version.


  1. A variation of POWW also was done by a station in Sacramento, CA for it's movie breaks in 1980.

    1. Namely on KTXL. I remember that station's Cap'n Mitch hosting that on his cartoon show. It was also on KTVU in Oakland, first with Pat McCormick (Charley & Humphrey, Dialing for Dollars), then with the Barney character from Raleigh's "Barney's Army". KTVU's version was called "The Barney Show".

  2. In Houston, Texas (sometime before 1979), I remember a call in video game where the caller would say "Pow!" The game was very simple - maybe a block that would "fire" towards a moving target or something. Recently, when reading some Wiki pages on the old consoles, I ran across the reference to their unit being used in a call in video game, and I wondered if that is what I had seen. My father (an electronics tinkerer who repaired TVs for neighbor's and built kit electronics), said it was just triggered by sound and you could yell anything to trigger it. I wonder if he knew something about it, or was just guessing.

  3. Addendum: One Houston cable TV provider (early 80s) had a box installed on the wall with a long cable running to a calculator-type device. I don't remember if it was used as a remote control, but I do remember they used it to do live polling. They ran a live show and would let the audience vote on things and show the results. (Some kids I know may have prank called the show enough times that they stopped doing it.) They also did games people could play at home. I remember one that was called "life raft" or similar. The screen showed four crude computer boxes (rafts), and you voted A, B, C or D. The trick was to get as many people on the same raft without it sinking (say, 75%) so if too many people selected the same raft, it sunk. Not much of a point, but I remember trying it out. I thought back then they could use it to play Dragon's Lair (or similar adventure type game) letting majority rule on the choices made. I guess that means this was after DL came out.

  4. The Atari VCS was actually available a few months earlier. I have 2 newspaper ads from August 1st, 1977 on my site:

    1. Btw, Atari had also released several dedicated home consoles prior to the VCS, so if Kempner's comments are from 1976, he would have been referring to one or more of those.

    2. I've found ads stretching back into July, though Alex keeps telling me that they're just a mistake.