Thursday, 1 September 2016

When NBC Joined Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory "In Progress"

Today when a NFL game airing on one of the American broadcast networks runs over time, the network usually airs its prime-time programming in its entirety after the game. Unfortunately for television viewers this wasn't always the case. From the very late Sixties to around the mid-Eighties when a NFL game ran over time the networks simply joined the regular programming in progress. This meant that viewers might miss several minutes of any show or movie that was scheduled to air after the game. Sometimes it meant that a show might be entirely pre-empted. As might be expected, viewers were often outraged at missing several minutes of the programming they wanted to watch. That was certainly the case on November 23 1975 when a game between the Oakland Raiders and the Washington Redskins ran over time and NBC joined Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory in progress in the Eastern and Central Time Zones.

As to why the networks adopted this policy of joining prime-time programmes "in progress" following over-time NFL games, that can be blamed on an incident that occurred in 1968: the notorious "Heidi Game". On November 17 1968 NBC planned to air a television movie adaption of the classic Heidi following a game between the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders, two teams in the American Football League (which had not yet completed its merger with the NFL).  Through a series of circumstances, some of which were very much beyond NBC's control, the network left the game at 7:00 PM Eastern/6:00 PM Central in order to show Heidi in its entirety. When NBC left the game, the Jets were leading 32 points to 29 points with 65 seconds to go. After NBC left the game the Raiders would come from behind with 14 points, to win the game with 43 to 32. Angry American football fans not only flooded NBC with calls, but they also called their local NBC affiliates, various newspapers, and even the telephone company.

It was following the "Heidi Game" that the NFL would insert a clause requiring the networks to show games in their entirety into their contracts with them. The broadcast networks' solution was then to simply air games that ran over time in full and join whatever programming was scheduled afterwards in progress. As pointed out above, this sometimes resulted in angry viewers. That having been said, the outrage on the part of viewers who missed the first 45 minutes of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory in November 1975 nearly matched the outrage of American football fans over missing the last several minutes of the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders game in November 1968.

Today it is quite understandable why viewers would be angry at missing the first several minutes of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. When Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was released on June 23 1971 it did not perform particularly well at the box office. That having been said, in the following years, events would unfold that make Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory more popular than it had been in its initial release. For one thing, its star, Gene Wilder, would experience his first major successes in 1974 with Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. For another, in the years following its release Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory became a favourite at children's matinees at theatres around the country. With the film's newfound popularity, then, NBC quite naturally promoted its broadcast network premiere quite heavily. In late 1975 there was little way that someone would not know that Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was scheduled to air on NBC at 7:00 PM Eastern/6:00 PM Central on Sunday, November 23.

Unfortunately when 7:00 PM Eastern/6:00 PM Central arrived, the Raiders and Redskins were tied at 23-23. The game then went into overtime and it was nearly 45 minutes before the Raiders won the game 26-23. This meant that viewers in the Eastern and Central time zones missed the first 45 minutes or so of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Fortunately viewers in the Mountain and Pacific time zones got to see the film in its entirety.

The reaction of angry parents and children was swift and immediate. At 7:45 PM, when NBC joined Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory in progress, and again at 9:30 PM the network received over 1000 phone calls from people angry at having missed the first 45 minutes of the movie. As to NBC, their explanation as to why they did not show the film in its entirety was simply that if they had it would have ended at 9:40 PM Eastern/8:40 Central, which they thought was a little late for children to be up.

Fortunately for those viewers who had missed the first 45 minutes of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory on November 23 1975, NBC re-aired the film on May 2 1976. Fortunately there were no NFL games to run over-time that evening. As might be expected, NBC once more promoted this airing of Willy Wonka & Chocolate Factory very heavily.

Unfortunately the outrage viewers expressed at missing the first 45 minutes of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory would not change the networks' policy regarding programming that followed overtime games for literally years. It would not be until the Eighties that the networks would start airing their prime-time programming in its entirety after a game had run over time. In the mean time, one has to suspect they received yet more angry phone calls from people more concerned with watching their favourite shows than a NFL game.

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