It was a day that would change American football forever. On November 17, 1968, the New York Jets played the Oakland Raiders. At the time, they were two of the best teams in the AFL (just before it merged with the NFL). They were also bitter rivals, with a combined 10 future Hall of Fame players on each team.
The game, which was being played in Oakland, was on its way to becoming an instant classic. Both teams went back-and-forth trading blows, with each team stealing the lead from the other six times before tying things up at 29-29.
A Jim Turner field goal would eventually give the Jets a 32-29 lead, but in the game’s final minute, Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica hit Charlie Smith on a 20-yard pass. A penalty got them another 15 yards. The Raiders were crossing midfield, looking poised to score when all of the sudden, fans watching NBC saw a small child on TV, walking down a hill in the Swiss Alps.
NBC had decided to switch off the game in favor of its previously scheduled programming, Heidi, a made-for-TV version of the children’s story about a young girl and her grandfather in the Alps.
Fans watching on television would miss Lamonica hit Smith once again, this time for the go-ahead touchdown. They would miss the Jets fumbling the kickoff, and Oakland’s Preston Ridlehuber grabbing the ball and running for another touchdown. They would miss Oakland’s epic 43-32 comeback victory.
How Did This Happen?
It turns out, network executives at NBC had thought about this potential scenario earlier. They decided that even if the Jets-Raiders game went long, they would still go ahead with Heidi.
NBC programmer Dick Cline waited as the time to switch over to the film came closer. He expected some sort of direction from his bosses at NBC. When it was 7:00pm, he did what they had all agreed to do.
Unfortunately, those NBC executives actually had changed their minds. However, with so many people calling the network – some to demand the game stay on, and some to ask about Heidi – the phone lines stayed busy. No one from NBC could get in contact with Cline until it was too late.
To further infuriate everyone, NBC displayed the results of the game on screen while Heidi was airing. Football fans were outraged to see that they had missed a thrilling ending, and Heidi fans were upset that football results were distracting from a particularly emotional moment during the film, when Heidi’s paralyzed cousin Clara was taking her first, slow steps.
Aftermath of the Heidi Game
The Heidi Game, as it soon came to be known, changed the way future NFL games would be televised. The NFL would add a clause to all its TV contracts moving forward, guaranteeing that all games would be broadcast in their entirety in their home markets.
NBC enacted a change too. They installed a special phone in their control room to ensure that communication between network execs and programmers could never be impeded upon. It quickly became known as the “Heidi Phone”.
The Heidi Game would ultimately change the dynamics between the NFL and TV networks. For a long while, networks felt that the NFL would need to conform to their structure. However, the Heidi Game proved that it was actually TV that would need to change to fit the needs of the NFL.
End the end, the most important lesson learned by network executives is that you never leave an NFL football game.
Can’t get enough NFL? How about trying a few NFL quizzes on Sporcle?
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.