Even bad television shows usually get to air a few episodes before network executives put them out of their misery and cancel them. However, on one night in February 1969, Turn-On joined television infamy by being canceled during its first episode. One ABC affiliate in Ohio even famously refused to go back to the show after its first commercial break and West Coast stations refused to air it at all.
Turn-On began as the next project from Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, the producers of the hit series Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Like Laugh-In, Turn-On was a sketch comedy series. However, the skits were performed without any sets and there was no laugh track. The jokes focused mostly on risque sexual innuendos and it was supposed to be "produced" by a computer. The legendary Tim Conway was recruited as the first celebrity guest. The writing staff also included Albert Brooks, and the main cast included Teresa Graves, who would join Laugh-In the following season.
The show's claim to infamy stems from the WEWS-TV executives' decision to stop airing the show in Cleveland after its first commercial break. WEWS claimed to have received protest calls during the show's first 10 minutes. They decided to just air a black screen with live organ music instead of the rest of the show. Network general manager Donald Perris said Turn-On was "in excessive poor taste" and sent off an angry telegram to ABC President Elton Rule. Notably, WAKR-TV, an ABC affiliate in Akron, did air the entire episode.
After the situation in Ohio, several stations in the Western Time Zone declined to air it at all. East Coast critics who saw the show wrote negative reviews, but some have come around to thinking it was ahead of its time. Even Conway later said in 2008 that it was "way ahead of its time. I'm not sure even if you saw it today that maybe that time has also passed."
Turn-On was effectively canceled on Feb. 7, 1969, two days after its disastrous debut. ABC aired the 1966 box office flop The Oscar instead of the Feb. 12 episode. On Feb. 10, ABC officially canceled the show after multiple affiliates told ABC they would not air it. ABC filled the slot for the rest of the season with a revival of The King Family Show.
As Vulture pointed out in a 2019 exhaustive history of the Turn-On debacle, there is only one way to legally see the two episodes of Turn-On that were made. You have to go to New York's Paley Center for Media, where they can be found within its vast media library. The sketches contain many jokes that could still shock audiences. There is a sight gag where a camera pans across bleachers, only to reveal the audience is wearing KKK uniforms. One sketch is an infomercial for a foot fetishes' fan club. There was one sketch with blackface and another sketch that could be considered anti-Semitic. Still, some other jokes might be right at home in a sitcom airing today.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Turn-On disaster is that it happened at all. Today, getting on broadcast television is one of the more difficult feats in Hollywood, especially with networks still going through the pilot stage, test screenings, and series orders. How did Turn-On get through so many stages before airing? At least ABC can take solace in knowing Turn-On wasn't the only series to get canceled quickly.