Wednesday, November 17, 2010

November 17, 1968: The Heidi Bowl

OAKLAND, Calif. - There was 1:05 left on the clock when everything went dark. The 7-2 New York Jets had just kicked a field goal to take a 32-29 lead over the 7-2 Oakland Raiders. After the ensuing kickoff, at precisely 7:00 Eastern time, the NBC affiliates across the country cut to commercial. When the broadcast feed returned, football fans were watching not the final minute of the football game, but the opening credits of the made-for-TV movie Heidi.

It seemed like a weird time to cut away from the game, but NBC was contractually obligated to show Heidi starting at 7:00, regardless of whether the game was over. It had rarely been a problem in the past, as most games at that time were over within the three-hour window they were given. If they weren't, it was fairly common practice to flip away from games that weren't quite finished - that afternoon, the end of the San Diego-Buffalo game had been cut off so NBC could show the entire Jets-Raiders game.

This time, though, NBC studio heads changed their minds. Seeing how exciting the Jets-Raiders game was, they felt like it would be all right to delay the start of Heidi by a few minutes. The problem was they couldn't get through. So many people were calling in to local NBC studios asking if the whole game would be shown (or, in some cases, asking if Heidi would be shown on time), that the NBC executives couldn't get through to communicate their decision to keep showing the game. So the switch was made, and at 7:00 everybody in the country east of Denver, instead of seeing the Raiders starting their last-ditch drive, instead saw Heidi running through a field of flowers.

It was the old days of television, where the signal was sent over telephone wires rather than by satellite, so switching back would be a time-consuming and labor-intensive option. Plus, the NBC heads still couldn't get through to say they wanted the game switched back on, anyway. Communication was so poor that the people in NBC's studio didn't even know what was happening in the game.

What was happening was one of the most exciting endings in regular-season history. After taking the kickoff to the 23 yard line, Daryle Lamonica completed a 20-yard pass to Charlie Smith on the first play, with 15 more yards being tacked on because of a facemask penalty. On the next play, Lamonica found Smith again, this time for a 43-yard touchdown. The Raiders had gone 77 yards in two plays to take the lead, and nobody east of the Rockies saw it.

But things weren't done. On the ensuing kickoff, the Jets had trouble recovering the bouncing ball. Oakland's Preston Ridlehuber picked up the fumbled kickoff at the 2 and stepped into the end zone for another Raider touchdown. The Raiders had scored twice in 32 seconds, all while most of the country was watching a touching movie about a young girl being raised by her grandfather in the Swiss Alps.

The oblivious viewers were no doubt a little surprised to see a crawl start across the bottom of the screen at 8:40. Just as Heidi's cousin Clara was summoning the courage to walk after falling from her wheelchair, the score showed up on the bottom of the screen: Oakland 43, New York 32.

Outraged viewers flooded NBC studios with calls, calling with such frequency that the switchboard in New York blew 25 fuses. NBC scrambled to try to fix things, going so far as issuing a public apology at the end of the movie and showing the final 1:05 of the game in its entirety on the evening news. That wasn't enough to placate fans.

The Heidi Bowl, as the game came to be known, changed the way football was shown on television. Soon afterwards, a rule was put in place that the end of a game cannot be preempted in the home market of the two teams. The reaction also showed NBC just how popular televised football had become in America, and the AFL in particular. Soon, NBC was able to nearly double its ad rates for AFL games. This game, along with those same Jets beating Baltimore in that year's Super Bowl, helped legitimize the AFL to the point it was able to merge with the NFL for the 1970 season.

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