The Day That Changed TV Sports Forever

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New York Jets' quarterback Joe Namath sweeps around the right side past Oakland defenders Ralph Oliver and Dan Conners to score from the one-yard line during the second quarter against the Oakland Raiders, Nov. 17, 1968 at the Oakland Coliseum in Calif.

On Nov. 17, 1968, the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets played, arguably, the most influential regular-season game in National Football League history. As it turned out, the Raiders scored two touchdowns in the final minute or so to pull out a thrilling 43-32 victory in front of their home fans.

But what people truly remember is that this game — forever known as “The Heidi Bowl” — changed the way television presented football games — and all sports broadcasts in general. Since that Sunday afternoon, broadcasters have assiduously shown most games till their conclusions before breaking away to offer other kinds of programming.

This was a genuine moment in history. NBC, to the dismay of pro football fans, cut away from the Raiders-Jets game at 7:00 p.m., Eastern, to begin the scheduled broadcast of “Heidi.” The endearing TV movie was a favorite of children and families.

How times have changed. Today, football games take more than three hours to complete. Forty-five years ago, networks could comfortably set aside time slots of three hours to show a complete football game. Thanks to an unusual amount of penalties and injuries, the Raiders-Jets game went longer than expected.

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These two teams had a heated rivalry and would in fact meet again at Shea Stadium in New York, only six weeks later to play in the American Football League championship game. Led by star quarterback Joe Namath, the Jets won that meeting, 27-23, and went on to defeat the Baltimore Colts of the National Football League in Super Bowl III. That marked the famous moment when Namath publicly and brazenly guaranteed that the Jets would defeat the heavily favored Colts (and they did, 16-7).

As the nerve-racking game on Nov. 17, 1968 drew to a close, NBC had to make a choice: Should it halt the presentation of the football and show “Heidi” as scheduled? Either way, NBC was sure to get plenty of criticism from angry parents of heartbroken children or diehard football followers.

Originally, it looked like NBC would determine that “Heidi” had to start on time, at 7:00 in the East. But the exciting game prompted the network to decide to push back the opening of the film. Unfortunately, there were communications snafus and “Heidi” went on as planned. The NBC executives, who were prepared to order that the football game go on till the end, couldn’t get through the NBC switchboard because so many viewers had called to inquire when “Heidi” would be going on.

The outcry from outraged football fans was immediate and savage.

As syndicated columnist and humorist Art Buchwald wrote not long after the fracas: “Men who wouldn’t get out of their chairs during an earthquake rushed to the phones to scream obscenities at the man responsible for cutting off the game.”

Forty-five years later, we can reflect on what it all means. Remember, this game took place before the annual Super Bowl proved to be the most-watched event of the year. These were simpler times, to be sure.

It also occurred long before fantasy sports leagues and NFL suicide pools began to play such a huge role in people’s lives and make the NFL even more important to the public.

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That NBC even considered breaking away from a Raiders-Jets game in 1968 underscores how far football has come as a TV staple. TV networks go where the money is, pure and simple. They follow the ratings. Someone at NBC must have reckoned that “Heidi” would draw more viewers than the end of a football game played in Oakland.

It is interesting to ponder what CBS might have done in a similar situation 45 years ago during one of its football broadcasts. In those days, CBS had the more prestigious NFL games while NBC took on the American Football League. Perhaps CBS would have done something different. We’ll never actually know for sure.

Today, it seems utterly charming that little Heidi could cause such a commotion and also transform television sports. At 7:00 on a Sunday night these days, you may find yourself lambasting CBS for delaying the start of “60 Minutes” to show the final minutes of a one-sided game.

Blame “Heidi!”

Jon Friedman is a freelance writer in New York and the author of “Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for (Re)Invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution.” For the record, he has never seen “Heidi.”
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