Starcade was created by James Caruso and Mavis E. Arthur of JM Production Company who came up with the idea in 1981 while lying on the beach at the Caneel Bay resort in the Virgin Islands. At the time, video gaming's golden age was just getting into full swing. Gathering 24 contestants, Arthur and Caruso taped a pilot episode at San Francisco’s KRON studio. U.S. Hockey team captain Mike Eruzione hosted and Larry Wilcox, of C.H.I.P.S was brought in as a celebrity player. Games were supplied courtesy of Nolan Bushnell and a number of other manufacturers. The players were arranged in three rows of eight players and had 30 seconds to score as many points as they could on a given game, with each row playing a different game (Defender, Centipede, and Pac-Man). The winners from each group then squared off in a final game of Donkey Kong with the winner receiving an Asteroids Deluxe arcade game and an Apple II computer (the winner also played a game against Wilcox for fun). After numerous delays (including an inexperienced host who kept flubbing his lines and a balky Larry Wilcox whose agent wanted him to leave) they finally put together enough tape for a pilot which aired on San Francisco's NBC affiliate KRON on Sunday September 13, 1981 at 6 P.M., winning its timeslot. The show was reaired in a few other local markets but failed to get picked up by a network.
Mavis Arthur and Jim Caruso, creators of Starcade
Caruso and Arthur revamped the show’s format and redesigned the set then contacted NBC in Los Angeles and made an appointment with Phil Ross, VP of owned and operated programming. After they sat down, Ross pushed a button causing his office door to automatically slam shut Caruso and Arthur began enthusiastically pitching their show, reading from the script and showing him the pilot. After three hours, Ross asked how they'd gotten into his office. When they told him they'd just called and made the appointment, he told them he admired their chutzpah and suggested they contact Alex Trebek to host a second pilot episode They offered Trebek $5,000 to host three pilot episodes. Trebek, who was then out of work, readily accepted and production was soon underway at San Francisco’s Bridge Studios. NBC sent a C&P (compliance and practices) lawyer as well as the VP of the C&P division to help with the legalities. When they asked Caruso and Arthur to obscure the names of the manufacturers of the games that would appear on the show, the two refused (they had already promised the manufacturers that they would show their names). Six more half-hour episodes were produced and shipped to NBC. While Ross liked the show, local station managers did not. Some were frightened away by the negative portrayals of video games beginning to surface in the media. Others wondered who would want to watch people play video games on TV. Caruso and Arthur still were not ready to throw in the towel, turning to producer Jack Rhodes, who suggested they put the show on cable. The duo liked the idea and soon landed a deal with TBS to produce 13 shows. Opting not to use Alex Trebek as host, they turned to another game show veteran, but one who had never hosted a show.
Alex Trebek - 2nd host of Starcade
Mark Richards, original host of the broadcast version of Starcade
Mark Richards had actually been on six different game shows but as a contestant not as a host. On a whim, he started a school in San Diego to teach people how to get on game shows. He held a series of free seminars then handpicked promising attendees as students. He charged no admission fees but instead took 20% of whatever the students won if they happened to make it onto a show. Eventually the L.A. Times published an article on Richards and his school and the story was picked up by Entertainment Tonight, Real People, the CBS Evening News and others. The Entertainment Tonight segment led to a guest spot on the Phil Donahue Show in March of 1982. During the last 15 minutes of the show. Richards served as host for a mock game show starring Phil and two audience members. When the show was rerun in fall, Jim Caruso saw it and invited Richards to tryout as host for a cable-based TV game show based on arcade video games. Richards was skeptical (he didn't play video games) but figured if nothing else, he'd get a free trip to San Francisco. Richards made the trip and taped a demo, which was shipped to Ted Turner at TBS. To his surprise, Richards got the job.
With a host and a sponsor (Parker Brothers), the team set to work interviewing contestants, building a set, and revising the games’ rules. Music was provided by Mindseed, a company co-founded by Ed Anderson, who also composed the show’s theme
[Ed Anderson] When we were at Namco, Jim Caruso and Mavis Arthur came in. They had an idea about doing the first video game TV show. Mr. Nakajima said to talk to Ed and Joanne so we got together. I was a representative for Namco for all the manufacturer’s association meetings and so was Joanne. They needed games from every game company as prizes, they needed permission to use them on television and they needed technical assistance so that we could sync the speed of the raster with the camera so you wouldn’t get that computer flutter on screen. So we went to the next manufacturer’s meeting and we brought Jim and lobbied all the manufacturers. The big 8 and everybody else agreed it was good for the industry so we got commitments from them and started filming . . . I wrote the theme song . . . I’m still getting royalty checks from Spain – Of course they’re only for $1.50.
There were also a number of technical challenges, the biggest of which was finding a way to “freeze” a player’s score at the exact moment time ran out. They eventually solved the problem by connecting a TRS-80 computer to the camera to stop the tape at the correct moment. Taping for the initial 13 episodes started on in early December and the first episode aired on December 27th. In March of 1983, with the initial 13 episodes done, Starcade rented a booth at the National Association of Television Programming convention in Las Vegas. Afterwards they filmed another 13 episodes. The show was broadcast on Monday afternoons, then switched to Saturday at 9 A.M. where it drew a respectable (for cable at the time) 7.8 rating at its peak.
Behind the scenes on the Starcade set - from Jim Bickman's article in GameRoom magazine, December, 1999
In May, Richards called Caruso for an update on the show. Caruso told him the good news - the show had been picked up for syndication. They had met with Ted Turner at the NATPE, who had liked the show and asked Caruso and Arthur if they could produce it daily, which would mean producing 133 episodes instead of 13. Then came the bad news - TBS wanted a more bankable name and Caruso and Arthur had hired veteran game show host Geoff Edwards to replace Richards. Edwards (who, as a reporter, had been present when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald) had previously served as host of Jackpot and the New Treasure Hunt. It's his work on Starcade, however, that many remember him for today.
The format for Starcade (under both Richards and Edwards) was different than that of the original pilot. Two contestants (or teams, as they were sometimes joined by their parents) competed in two rounds. Players were not all children or teenagers. Adults were sometimes paired against preteens (though the pairings were based on the players' performance in a warm up session). Each round started with a video-game-related toss-up question (example: "When the mother kangaroo rescues her baby in the game Kangaroo, what song plays? Is it A) Happy Days Are Here Again or B) Oh, Susannah?"). The first player to answer correctly chose from among five available arcade games. After a description of how to play the game (by announcer Kevin McMahan), the two players played for 40 seconds (later 60, then 50). Another question and another game followed. The player with the highest total score in the two games then played "Name the Game", in which they were shown screenshots from four different games, which they had to identify from two given choices. Prizes were awarded for correctly identifying 3 or 4 games. Round two consisted of a third question and game (this time with less playing time). In addition, one of the five games was a "mystery game". If they player picked the mystery game, they won an additional prize. The round two winner played another "Name the Game" bonus round (though this segment was dropped once Edwards took over as host). The scoring from game to game could vary wildly. With some games, scoring a thousand points in the given time limit was a challenge while in others scoring several thousand was easy. While this could result in somewhat anticlimactic finishes, it also added an element of strategy to the game, since players who were ahead could pick low-scoring games (assuming they won the toss-up and knew which ones they were) in order to protect their lead.The player with the highest score over all three games advanced to the bonus round where they chose from the two remaining games and tried to obtain a specified target score within the 30-second time limit to win the grand prize - an actual arcade video game. In later shows, a "hotline" segment was added featuring interviews, gaming news, and more.Occasionally the show would feature a special theme episode (such as the two Dragon's Lair epsiodes or the Pac-Man family competition).
While Starcade was never really a hit in the ratings, it was a must-see for thousands of video game fans, many of whom dreamed of competing on the show. For some, it was their first and only chance to see video games that would never appear in their hometown arcade. Starcade aired on WTBS from 1981 to 1984 when it, along with the golden age of video games, disappeared (a follow-up show called The Video Game ran from September 1984 to September 1985).
A similar program, The Video Game Challenge, never made it into production. Produced by Viacom and hosted by former teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman, The Video Game Challenge started with a competition on a game between two top players then followed with tips from arcade gamers, a review of the top ten home and arcade games, and reviews and previews of new games. In the pilot episode, Ben Gold and Eric Ginner squared off on Millipede but it appears that no further episodes were produced.
Video Game Previews was a planned weekly magazine format show produced by Vistar productions hosted by Mark Ganzel (formerly of Don Kirschner's Rock Concert), Teal Roberts, and Michael Leon with appearances by Nolan Bushnell. 25 episodes were planned for the first season, starting in October 1983.For more information: