A curious event in the history of American Football, and voted 10th place among the Most Memorable NFL Games of the Century, the Heidi Game is unusual in that it is famous for people not seeing the complete match. It was the day that ensured sports coverage became top dog in American television, with the contracts to show games revised in light of that day's events.
The date was 17 November, 1968. Most cities only received one televised football game a week, and that week the nationally broadcast game was between the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders. These were the two top teams in the AFL1 and both were standing at 7-22 coming into the game at the Oakland Coliseum. Previous meetings between the teams had been hard-hitting encounters, with plenty of late tackles, penalties and punch-ups.
Sports programming is often used by the television networks as a lead in to evening programming — the audience will hopefully carry on watching whatever comes after. On this particular day, NBC had planned to show the Jets v Raiders game, followed by the made-for-television film, Heidi. The game was scheduled to start at 4pm, Eastern Time, and finish at 7pm when Heidi would start. Ordinarily, this should have been long enough for the game to finish. NBC had been advertising Heidi in advance, and was hoping that the football would help give them good ratings for it in the November Sweeps when the official viewing figures are calculated.
The game was closely contested, the score at half time being 12-14 in favour of Oakland, and was running longer than expected due to timeouts and penalties (the total for the game was 19 penalties for 238 yards). The quarterbacks, Joe Namath (Jets) and Daryl Lamonica (Raiders) led their teams through eight changes of lead until with one minute and five seconds left on the clock, Jim Turner kicked a 26 yard field goal and the score stood at 32-29 to the Jets.
New York kicked off, and the Raiders returned the ball to their own 23-yard line. It was 7pm, and NBC went to a commercial break. Surely the game was won. The Raiders centre snapped the ball to Lamonica, who threw a 20 yard pass to Charlie Smith. Jets defender Mike D'Amato grabbed Smith's facemask, resulting in a 15-yard penalty on the play. The Raiders were now on the Jets' 43-yard line. On the next play, Lamonica threw another pass to Smith, who this time evaded the clutches of D'Amato to run in a 43-yard touchdown, making the score 32-36. Namath and the Jets had to try and make a comeback.
Jets kick returner Earl Christy fumbled the subsequent kick-off, and as the players scrambled to recover the ball, Preston Ridlehuber, playing on special teams3 for Oakland grabbed it, and scored a touchdown. With only 33 seconds remaining, the Raiders were winning with the score standing at 32-42, and despite the Jets best efforts, held on to win a memorable game.
The problem was, after the commercial break at 7pm, NBC hadn't returned to the game. As per the instructions he'd been given in advance, Dick Cline, NBC's Broadcast Operations Supervisor flicked the switch, and the eastern and central parts of the network began showing Heidi . Football fans were stunned to be watching the tale of a little girl and her grandfather in the Alps, rather than the conclusion of the game.
'(Prior to the game being played) it was determined that Heidi would air at 7pm. If football wasn't over, we would still go to Heidi at 7pm. So I waited and I waited and I heard nothing. We came up to that magic hour and I thought, "Well, I haven't been given any counter-order so I've got to do what we agreed to do."'
– Dick Cline.
The debacle was compounded when, during a particularly dramatic scene in the film, the network ran a crawling ticker across the bottom of the screen revealing the final score. The NBC switchboard went into meltdown as football fans called to complain about missing the end of the game. When they couldn't get through to the network, they started calling police, the telephone company, and the New York Times.
It later turned out that the bosses at NBC had decided to delay the start of the film, but couldn't get through on the switchboard to Cline. The phones had been tied up with people calling the network before 7pm either to plead with them to stay with the game, or checking Heidi would start on time as scheduled; and Cline never got the message, neither could he call out. NBC ran an apology at 8.30pm and by next morning it was a front page story for the New York Times.
At NBC, the network installed a new phone in the control room wired to a separate exchange in order to avoid the same communication breakdown; (it became known as the 'Heidi Phone'). The AFL, and many other sports leagues demanded that networks televise games to their conclusion, no matter what the score was. All the major networks announced that henceforth they would never cut away from pro football for other programming.
'Probably the most significant factor to come out of Heidi was, whatever you do, you better not leave an NFL football game. Ten years earlier, if you did the same thing on a telecast, would you get the same type of an uproar? I don't know. But you sure did at that point in time. It sure let you know that you better not take my football away from me at 7pm.'
– Val Pinchbeck
former NFL chief of broadcasting.
Later that season, the Jets beat the Raiders in the AFL Championship Game, 27-23, and then went on to beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.