On 17 November 1968 the New York Jets were playing against the Raiders in their hometown of Oakland. With just 1:05 minutes left in the game, the Jets had the lead 32-29. Due to a lot of incompletions, penalties and other things, the game was going to exceed the three hour timeslot that NBC had set aside for the game. With 65 seconds to go, fans eagerly awaited the outcome of the game. The two teams were considered the most powerful of the American Football League and people were anxious for the outcome. And it would not disappoint with two touchdowns by Oakland to win the game. An exciting moment except for one thing: the tv audience never saw it.
Just as people were ready to see the end at 7 pm eastern, NBC switched to a heavily promoted movie Heidi. Timex had purchased the advertising rights for the entire time slot and so many were expecting it to start around that time. In fact, they got calls from worried parents about Heidi and when it would start once the game was over. For the football fans, it was an outrage. Instead of seeing the end of a great game, you got the story of Heidi. You can guess what happened next. NBC was flooded with calls from football fans complaining about what the network did.
NBC had thought going into that weekend the game would be over at three hours and there would be no conflict. Dick Cline was the supervisor at Broadcast Operations in New York at the time. He had been told beforehand to start Heidi at 7 pm no matter what. As the appointed time approached, he got no call to delay and keep showing the game. It would turn out later that NBC executives did make a decision to stay with the game. Just one problem though-they could not get through to him since all the phone lines to NBC was overwhelmed with calls. Those calls, before the game ended, were from parents concerned Heidi would not start on time. Then when Heidi came on, angry football fans called. The switchboard became overloaded and no one could get through for quite a while. Cline would not be fired or suffer from it but got a lot of ribbing over it (and plenty of jokes about broken Timex watches).
Needless to say, it created an important rule for broadcasting live football games: Never leave a pro football game again in a participating team’s market until the clock hits zero for. That is why today they will pull away only for timeouts, halftime, and other things where the clock will be stopped for a short time. The NFL would put into the contract that networks had to show games to completion in the road team’s television market. Other sports leagues would follow that as well in their own contracts with networks.
And, of course, it would become forever known as the Heidi Debacle that is still talked about today by football fans. You can also guess that behind the scenes there were some uncomfortable conversations between network executives, the football league, and probably a few politicians as well.
TV viewers become outraged as football game is cut off to air “Heidi” (History.com)
Heidi Bowl: It’s been 50 years since Jets-Raiders TV debacle (Newsday)
Heidi Game (Wikipedia)