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INTERVIEW
James R. Caruso




James Caruso was the executive producer of STARCADE, the televised game show where contestants competed by answering trivia questions about video games and by playing video games. The show aired on television stations across the US in the 1980's, and featured the hottest video games of that time. Today, the games of STARCADE are considered the classics of the video game industry.

MT> Please describe you role and duties as Executive Producer and Director of the show?
JC> The roles of Executive Producers were split between Mavis and myself. Most of the responsibilities at this level were our efforts were varied, developing the idea, writing a treatment and then raising the dollars to produce, talking a station, networks(s) into broadcasting the show, trying to get a syndicate, getting the set designed and built, finding studio to shoot in and equipment to shoot with. Develop the above the line and below the line production budgets. Selecting the host and other major support personnel. Oh, and sell commercials and get the prizes donated. And a million other things that it takes to produce a TV show.

The most important is writing the script and Mavis had that responsibility. She wrote not only all of the words that came out of Geoff and Kevin's mouths. She wrote all of the V.O. game descriptions, she had to write all of the prize copy and the Hotlines. During the actual production she selected all of the prize round games and double checked that we were following the rules and kept track of the elapsed time of each act.

The Director is GOD, everyone reported to me, the creative staff, the writer, the performers, the technical crew, the grips, the gaffers and the goof offs all are the director's responsibility. The performance of the host and his delivery of the script and the contestant's performances are the major concerns of the Director. The overall pacing of the show is a major concern because a half hour show is only 22min. 38 seconds. The total number is 40-45 people all with ideas on how the show should be produced, written and directed.

The Director enforced all of the rules and regulations in the Starcade Bible. These are the rules of the game in order to keep Starcade fair for all the contestants and the producers out of jail. These rules also covered all of the Broadcaster's (networks) Standard and Practices, the rules that they ran their business with.

MT> Starcade consisted of several parts, the introduction, the multiple choice quiz section, the gameplay contests, the Bonus round, and the Super Prize Round. Who developed this format, and what other ideas were considered that were omitted in the end from the final show layout?
JC> The first Starcade concept was to have a sport team approach, because we thought this would appeal to our audience. We went with the development of this idea and the first pilot was hosted by Mike ErZZZ. There were 3 teams with 8 players on each team. Each team played a different video arcade game, Defender, Centipede, PacMan and the final game was Berzerk played by the team winners. The high scorer won and got to play our Star Larry Wilcox of Chips. The Starcade Video Game Champion was David Dyche, he and Larry played on the very first Donkey Kong Arcade Game. This episode was broadcast here in San Francisco on KRON, NBC at 6 PM Sunday, September 13, 1981. It had the highest ratings in the time period, and we thought we had a winner. The show played on several other stations in California, but we could not sell it to a major distributor or a network. It took a while but we finally realized that the sport team concept was wrong for video arcade games on TV. The other thing that held us up was all of the bad PR that the games were getting and believed by most people in the broadcast business, and most adults were afraid to even try playing one.

Mavis and I went back to our original concept and re-developed the format into about what you see today. We wrote and re-wrote the script until we were happy with it and started making calls. We landed a pitch meeting with the NBC VP in charge of all the network owned and operated stations. Then the networks were only allowed five stations. Combined the O&O stations covered about 70% of the country. The top three were located in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. If Starcade could have the O&Os it would be easy to get the rest of the country.

MT> Mark Richards hosted the first thirty-three episodes, and Geoff Edwards the final one hundred episodes. Both hosts were great, but is it true that Alex Trebec, of Jeopardy fame, was almost the original host for Starcade?
JC> We took our script, set model and a lot of enthusiasm to NBC Headquarters in Burbank. We knew we had the guy high enough in the network when we sat down and he pushed a button on his desk to close his office door. From past experience we knew that most pitch meetings lasted about 38 seconds and you were out the same door that you just came through. Well, long story short, after two and a half hours he asked how we got into see him. We told him that we had called and made an appointment. He said he had a friend in his waiting room that needed a job, Alex Trebeck. He would buy the show if the 5 O&O station managers liked it. They didn't even though we used his friend in the second pilot and had his S&P VP from New York on the set during production who thought Starcade would be a winner. NBC passed and I had a NBC t-shirt made that I wore to most productions. It said, "DUMB AS A PEACOCK."

We found a Distributor that knew Sid Pike who was Chairman of The Board of the fledging Turner Program Services. They had Parker Bros. willing to sponsor a show, but didn't have one that fit, until Starcade was presented to them. We negotiated a contract to produce 24 weekly shows for Turner. Ted met us at NATPE (National Association of Television Professionals and Executives) in Las Vegas. Sid introduced Mavis and I and after a little chitchat Ted asked us if we would strip the show for him and WTBS, that is make enough so they could show it daily. We shook hands all around and had a deal, their only demand was that we had to get a new host and that's when Geoff started hosting. We went into production and stopped when we had 133 Starcade Episodes. These Starcade shows were Turner's first syndication shows with WWF.

MT> Starcade! was TV's first arcade game show. Tell us about your attempt at a second videogame related show.
JC> Yes, after we finished the run of 133 Starcade episodes, we produced and syndicated The Video Game. It covered about 80 % of the US. It was a hard show to do and we dropped it after 26 episodes.
MT> Yes, and both shows were precursors and the basis for the early 90's "Nickelodean Arcade."

MT> The contestants ranged from age five to sixty-five, with the average age being fourteen. Were there any unfortunate events concerning the contestants or live studio audience. You know, like arguments or fistfights, or other nonsense not witnessed watching the show that happened behind closed studio doors? Any sour losers? Come on, spill the beans!
JC> We only had one incident with a contestant and his father was a Beverly Hills Lawyer. He thought he had won the Grand Prize when he saw his score on the screen of the game he was playing when the time was up. It was more than needed to win. It was close, but the score was below that needed when the computer said time had really expired and he lost. He and his father stayed overnight in San Francisco so they could be at the studio first thing the next morning and register their protest. We pulled the videotape, played it and it showed that when the timer sounded the score was actually below that needed to win, that was the end of that. Close, but no video game. We explained that the games kept scoring when the time ended and that we froze the screen on video at the exact end of the time period.

We had a Contestant ride the bus from Washington DC to San Francisco during a bus strike to try out. He arrived a day late with his grandmother and knocked on the office door about 8PM Sunday night, the day after the try outs and told us his story. They would have been here on time but a picket line in Chicago had prevented the bus from leaving for two days. We got them a free Hotel room and free food because they didn't look like they had much money and let him try out the next day. Of course he was a good player so he made it. He had a dream of winning a Video Arcade Game so he could put it in a location and make enough money to go to college. When he came back for the show he beat his opponent, but did not score enough points to win the Grand Prize.

Overall we had a great group of contestant's as you can see from those that have checked in the Contestant's Gallery.

MT> Were there any mishaps concerning the set? Mechanical or technical issues that plagued or haunted the show?
JC> To get the show on we had three cameras on the floor, two on the games and about 6000 miles of cable feeding to the switcher and then to the videotape machines. The biggest problem that we had to solve on set was when we decided that neon would look great, it did. But, it caused static in the audio and the video and I swear the doorknobs. It was everywhere. We finally grounded everything to get rid of it. In the beginning there were so many problems with the games it was unbelievable. We finally got a great crew of game wranglers and a lot of help from the Manufactures, particularly Nintendo.


MT> Starcade was a weekly Syndicated show during the peak years of the arcade, 1983 and 1984. Was the looming video game crash responsible for the demise of the show, or is there more to the story?
JC> We never saw the video game crash. Video games have continued on in one form or another since the 80's. We did see video arcades crash and many deserved to. Because it was mostly a cash business many of the operators, manufactures and the people that ran some of the companies got too greedy. They quit developing good arcade games that were fun to play and a challenge to the players. They were not fulfilling as they became more violent. The developers started putting the emphasis on home games and the manufactures started competing with themselves. Video games today are as big or even bigger today that they were in the 80's, just most aren't as much fun to play as a real video arcade game.

MT> Several games made their debut on "Starcade" before being shipped to video arcades. What were some of the titles that Starcade premiered first?
JC> Most video arcade games premiered on Starcade so it's difficult to pick out a few. Take a look at www.starcade.tv to see what we mean.

MT> What now sits upon the once proud studios of KPIX-TV, the original home of Starcade in San Francisco?
JC> The Archdiocese of San Francisco owned the studio and I don't know what is there now or if they still own the building.

MT> Starcade had some great sponsors and contestant prizes. What were some of your favorites then and now?
JC> I think some of my favorite prizes were The Bionic Chair, Mr. Disc (no bigger than a man's shoe) White's Metal Detector. Sponsors Kellogg's, Wrangler.

MT> Yes, the idea of Mr. Disc, a portable record player seems very laughable by todays standards! Thanks James!


Good Deal Games recognizes James Caruso for his major part in developing videogame
content for the television. Without his pioneering vision, current videogame coverage such as
G4 (which aired STARCADE repeates two decades later) and more may never have come to fruition.

Visit the official STARCADE! Website to learn more about the history of the show.


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