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'Heidi' game remains best you never saw

Jets-Raiders debacle in 1968 changed way sports are broadcast.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 23, 1999

She changed the way we watch sports on television.

Until 7 p.m. EST on Nov. 17, 1968, Heidi was just a charming Swiss girl, the title character of Johanna Spyri's 1880s children's tale, and she never played football. At that moment, though, she became as well known to many pro football fans as Joe Namath.

With 65 seconds remaining in their American Football League game, the New York Jets took a 32-29 lead over Oakland on Jim Turner's fourth field goal. The Raiders returned the ensuing kickoff to their 23-yard line. NBC, televising the game, went to a commercial break.

And never returned. "It was determined (before the game) that Heidi would air at 7," NBC broadcast operations supervisor Dick Cline said. "If football wasn't over, we would still go to Heidi at 7. 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 counterorder so I've got to do what we agreed to do.' "

In fact, people were calling NBC before 7 p.m., some demanding that the network stay with the game, others asking whether Heidi would be shown as scheduled. "What it did was, it literally blew out the switchboard," former NBC executive Chet Simmons said.

With seven minutes to play, NBC had decided to stay with it and delay the start of Heidi, but the flood of phone calls prevented executives frow getting through to Cline.

What the nation didn't see was this:

Oakland quarterback Daryle Lamonica's 20-yard pass to Charlie Smith and a face-mask penalty put the ball at the Jets 43-yard line. On the next play, Lamonica and Smith hooked up on a touchdown pass. Oakland led 36-32 with 42 seconds to play. The Jets fumbled the kickoff, Oakland's Preston Ridlehuber recovered at the 2 and scored. Oakland, with two TDs in nine seconds, won 43-32.

The uproar escalated when, 20 minutes after the game, NBC gave the final score in a "crawl" that ran at the bottom of the screen during Heidi.

NBC president Julius Goodman released a statement 90 minutes after the game calling the incident "a forgivable error committed by humans who were concerned about children expecting to see Heidi. ... I missed the end of the game as much as anyone else."

"It was on the front page of the New York Times," Simmons said. "And when you say something is on the front page of the New York Times, you've got to figure it's pretty important."

The game prompted the NFL to insert language into its TV contracts guaranteeing that, in the future, games of visiting clubs would be shown to their home markets in their entirety. Since then, virtually all major games in major sports are televised in their entirety.

Eleven years after Heidi came Chris Berman, Dick Vitale and another revolution in the way we watch sports. On Sept. 7, 1979, ESPN debuted and 24 hours of sports, eventually including televising the NFL draft, became the norm.

"Probably the most significant factor to come out of Heidi was, "Whatever you do, you'd better not leave an NFL football game,' " said Val Pinchbeck, the NFL's former senior vice president of broadcasting.

Cline said he still hears about the game. "I'm amazed," he said. "It's been more than 30 years and half the people who bring the Heidi game up to me weren't even born when the game was played."

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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