Wednesday, March 6, 2024

The Heidi Game

On the night of November 17, 1968, as the Jets played the Raiders, the sun shone brightly on a still and beautiful afternoon in the Oakland Coliseum. The skies were clear and the mid-fifties temperature was the epitome of “football weather,” where it’s cool enough to need a sweater and a stadium jacket, but not cold enough to be uncomfortable on the bare skin of your face or windy enough to make your eyes water. Across the country, the wind blew in light gusts in New York City, the waning crescent moon shining a last sliver before darkening completely later in the week. As darkness fell on the last day of the weekend in New York, many households sat in front of their television sets, cheering the Jets despite the odds being against them in their meeting with the Raiders in California.
The game went long, longer than the normal two-and-a-half hours networks set aside for airing a football event. The game was widely viewed by American football fans, not merely because football had surged in popularity in the preceding decade, but because of the long-standing, deep-seated rivalry between the Jets and the Raiders. At least as contentious and spirited as the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, the tensions between Raiders and Jets fans got intensely emotional. Frank Ramos, director of public relations for the Jets, is said to have remarked that “When the Jets played the Raiders, it wasn’t a rivalry. It was a war.” The game had been heavily promoted for the preceding week, and bets had been placed in historic volume. Quarterback Joe Namath of the Jets was already a household name. 
That night as the game stretched on, the Jets were ahead by ten points. With just over a minute left in the game, the East Coast broadcast switched to regular programming as scheduled, a remake of the 1938 movie classic Heidi, the Alpine lass penned into the modern imagination by Johanna Spyri with goats and mountains, a tale of healing love and kindness in the face of adversity, complete with a redemption-through-natural-purity heroine. With sixty-five seconds of game play left, the East Coast sets aired sounds of John Williams’ score for the much-hyped Timex television production starring the stepdaughter of Julie Andrews. Most viewers assumed the Jets won, an upset against Oakland, who was favored by seven and one-half points.
While Jennifer Edwards and Michael Redgrave brought the iconic tale of a girl and her grandfather to life for the small screen, the Oakland Raiders scored two touchdowns, blasting past the Jets’ lead, winning the game, and leaving egg splattered all over the NBC executives’ faces. 
The NBC executives had reportedly debated whether to switch, deciding to delay the airing of Heidi just long enough to allow the game to finish, but were unable to communicate the decision to the station control rooms. Anxious fans had jammed the switchboard with inquiries about the programming schedule and demands to keep the game on. The call volume was so high that the switchboard blew. Callers continued unabated when the phones went down at NBC,  directing their pleas and complaints anywhere that would answer a phone, from the New York Police Department to The New York Times.
The East Coast woke to news of the reversal of fortune for the Jets, and there was a collective outrage from fans for NBC; complaints flew as wildly as accusations. Bets had to be resettled in reverse. The network issued a formal apology the next day, vowing that henceforth regular programming would never preempt an in-process football game and declaring that dedicated “Heidi-phones” would be installed in broadcast command centers to ensure open and available communication between executives and local and regional broadcasting offices. 
The Heidi Game Rule, as it became known, still holds, fifty years later. Even in the face of the changing nature of broadcasting due to cable networks and streaming channels, the major networks will not interrupt broadcast of a live sporting event for regular network programming.
My mom was thrilled.