Monday, November 17, 2008

The 40th Anniversary of the "Heidi Game"

It was forty years ago today that NBC ended the broadcast of an American Football League game between the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets to join a scheduled broadcast of the television movie Heidi, starring Maximillian Schell and Jennifer Edwards. 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. At the time, the fact that NBC left the game enraged many football fans. In fact, the whole situation would be come a bit of a controversy. The game itself has since become known as "the Heidi Game."

In 1968 the American Football League (AFL) had become the only start-up league to rival the well established National Football League. It was immensely popular, enough that the intense competition for both fans and players would lead the two leagues to announce a planned merger on June 8, 1966. As of November 17, 1968, however, the AFL was still its own league. It would not merge with the NFL until the 1971 football season. As might be expected, the AFL's games generally attracted many viewers to television on Sunday afternoons.

As to NBC, it had been originally decided that whether the game was over or not, the network would join their scheduled broadcast of Heidi at 7:00 PM EST/6:00 PM CST. Even before 7 PM EST, however, fans were flooding NBC with phone calls to demand the network to stay with the game. The network then decided, with seven minutes to go, to stay with the game and air Heidi in its entirety afterwards. Unfortunately, NBC had received so many calls that the network's switchboard was completely blown. Network executives could not reach NBC broadcast operations supervisor Dick Cline to tell him not to leave the game. As a result, NBC would leave the game between the Jets and the Raiders, even though it had been decided that the network would remain with it. When network executives finally reached Cline, they demanded he return to the game, but by that time the video link to the game had ended and to restart it would require AT&T to call numerous telephone switching stations around the United States, something which time simply would not permit. The technology at the time then made returning the game impossible.

It was 8:20 PM EST that a crawl announced the game's ending and its outcome. This only enraged football fans even more, who called NBC, their local affiliates, various newspapers, and even the telephone company. In reaction, NBC's president Julius Goodman issued a statement referring to it as "...a forgiveable error committed by humans who were concerned about children expecting to see Heidi..." ninety minutes after the incident. Afterwards NBC would also buy ads in several major newspapers with great reviews for the TV movie Heidi. The incident would still be talked about the next day, making the front page of many newspapers (including The New York Times) and being mentioned not only on NBC's own news shows, but rival network ABC's evening the next day

The Heidi Game would be a turning point in both the history of American broadcast television and American football. Afterwards the NFL would insert a clause requiring the networks to show games in their entirety into their contracts with them. As to any television programming that aired afterwards, over the years the networks would handle these situations different. During the Seventies into the Eighties, it was typical for the networks to join programmes scheduled after NFL games "already in progress," meaning that viewers could miss the first part of many shows. If games ran an hour or more overtime, TV shows scheduled afterwards could be pre-empted entirely. This sometimes resulted in angry viewers. In 1975 NBC remained with a game between the Washington Redskins and the Oakland Raiders even though it ran over by 45 minutes. As a result, the network joined the very heavily promoted  network broadcast premiere of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory "already in progress" in the Eastern and Central time zones. The end result of NBC's decision was an unusually large number of angry calls from parents. By the Eighties, the networks started airing programmes in their entirety following NFL games that ran overtime, no matter how long that might be. I can only guess that the networks had tired of receiving calls from viewers angry that they had missed several minutes of their favourite programme or, worse yet, it had been pre-empted entirely, by a football game gone into overtime.

Sadly, the situation would not seem to be entirely favourable for many shows airing on Sunday evening. NFL games that ran overtime would result in low ratings for some shows, such as Malcolm in the Middle, and would be blamed in the demise for yet others, such as Futurama. Admittedly, the networks are in a bit of a no win situation given football games that run overtime. If they leave an NFL game before its conclusion, they risk angering football fans. But if they remain with the game, they risk losing viewers anxious to see their favourite shows. I must admit, Iwas not very happy with the networks back in the days when the networks would outright pre-empt shows for the conclusion of NFL games gone overtime--not unless the St. Louis Cardinals were playing in the game (now I am a Rams fan--I didn't watch NFL football at all when St. Louis didn't have a team...).

At any rate, although it might seem like a tempest in a teapot now, the Heidi Game was a watershed in television history. Reactions to NBC leaving the game would not only alter the networks' broadcast practices on Sunday evenings, but it signalled the growing popularity of American football in the United States. Since that time, professional football has remained the most popular sport in the country. The Heidi Game would not only transform American broadcast television, but American professional football as well.

1 comment:

Toby O'B said...

If I'm not mistaken, they even made a TV movie about it in the last ten years for ESPN. (Although it may be that it was just an idea in development, I'm not sure....)