The Infamous ‘Heidi Game’ Changed Televised Sports… Forever
This Saturday, November 17, will be the 50th anniversary of the infamous Heidi Game, in which NBC pulled away from a thrilling game between the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders at 7 PM Eastern Standard Time to air the television movie, Heidi. Such a decision would forever have an impact on the world of television, especially when it came to sports.
Here is what happened. NBC was scheduled to air the Jets-Raiders game at 4 PM, which would be followed by Heidi at exactly 7 PM. This was due to NBC having a contractual agreement with Timex (the movie’s sponsor), who had purchased the time slot from 7 PM-9 PM and would air its own commercials during the broadcast. No problems were expected regarding airing the movie on time since no football game had lasted more than three hours.
In charge of overseeing the lineup for that day was the broadcast operations control (BOC) supervisor Dick Cline in New York City. His superior, NBC sports executive producer Don 'Scotty' Connal, would be at home watching the game but was only a phone call away in case of any problems. Also watching the game from their homes were NBC president Julian Goodman, NBC sports president Carl Lindemann, and NBC sports vice-president Chet Simmons.
It should be noted that back in 1968, television broadcasts were transmitted by coaxial cable line (via cooperation of the telephone company). Since NBC was using three BOCs (in New York City, Chicago, and Burbank, California), the Burbank BOC would run the feed from Oakland (where the game was being played), insert commercials and announcements, and then transmit the feed to a switching station just west of the Mississippi. From there, an engineer was instructed to activate the feed when the game started, and after hearing the announcement for Heidi at 6:58 PM Eastern Standard Time, cut the feed from Burbank, after which the feed from New York City would start (and thus the movie). And once the switch was made, it could not be reversed.
But due to the many scores, both teams using all their timeouts, and various incompletions and penalties, the game was running longer than expected. And as the fourth quarter started at 6:20 PM EST, Cline and his superiors realized that the game might not end on time, and began deliberating on whether to air the game until its conclusion or start the movie at 7 PM. Eventually, they decided to keep the game on until it ended. However, they needed Goodman’s permission to do so. After Goodman (along with NBC television president Don Durgin) was contacted, it was decided that the game would be aired to its conclusion.
Meanwhile, many people began calling the NBC switchboard, some of whom were asking if the game would air until its end, while others asked if Heidi would start on time. The number of calls received resulted in the NBC switchboard being jammed (and even fuses being blown), which in turn prevented Cline’s superiors from informing him of Goodman’s decision. Thus, Cline (who had unsuccessfully tried to contact his superiors earlier and waited as long as he could), had no choice but the start the movie at 7 PM.
At this point in the game, the Jets had taken a 32-29 lead over the Raiders with just over a minute left in the fourth quarter. And just as the subsequent kickoff occurred, those watching the game saw it being replaced by Heidi. The game ended at 7:07 PM, during which the Raiders had scored two touchdowns to win 43-32.
Whereas those wanting to watch Heidi were relieved that it started on time, Jets fans were not. In fact, they were outraged, with many of them calling the NBC switchboard to inquire about the game’s final score or complain about the switch. Some fans even called the New York City Police Department to find out who won the game. Goodman himself was also outraged, and after getting in touch with Cline, told him to “go back to the ball game.” Although Cline promised to do his best, he knew it was impossible.
NBC would soon commit another blunder when it aired the game’s final score during a scene from Heidi in which one of its characters who had been confined to a wheelchair was attempting to walk again. Such a decision was seen by the movie’s fans as insensitive considering the content of the scene, while football fans were upset over what they had missed.
Football fans were still upset despite the efforts to calm them down (which consisted of an apology from Goodman, the final minute of the game being aired during the next day’s news broadcast, and NBC placing an ad in the New York Times with positive feedback about Heidi from various critics- the last quote being from Jets quarterback Joe Namath, whose quote was “I didn’t get a chance to see it but I hear it was great”).
Needless to say, NBC (and the rest of America) had underestimated just how popular football had become. As one individual noted, 'men who wouldn't get out of their chairs in an earthquake rushed to the phone to scream obscenities.'
As a result, NBC and other networks eventually decided that any sports event would be aired to its conclusion, and should not that be the case in some circumstances, the viewers would be informed of any switch to other programming. In addition, 'Heidi Phones' were installed, which were phones connected to different lines and thus not be affected by jammed switchboards.
Of course, with today’s technology, the odds of a similar fiasco (and the response from the viewers) is unlikely. But the Heidi Game proved to be a valuable lesson in regards to technology and contingency.
It is also one of the most memorable events in sports history, and in television history as well.