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A CLASSIC TALE.
November 16, 2001

by Bill Hogan

 

 
 

It's November 17, 1968.

The defending AFL Champion Oakland Raiders, hosting the up and coming New York Jets at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, are in the midst of a classic gridiron struggle.

 
 

NBC, which signed a five-year $36 million deal in 1965 to televise AFL games, is jumping for joy. They had decided to broadcast this game nationally. (Remember, it's 1968 - a sportsfan had two choices - the game, or the Pro Bowlers Tour).

The teams have not disappointed. Sportsfans all across the country are glued to their television sets.

The action is fast and furious.

Quarterback Daryl Lamonica, Oakland's "Mad Bomber", is carving up the Jets defense with over three hundred yards passing and three touchdowns.

Joe Namath is matching Lamonica yard for yard and leading the Jets up and down the field.

Both defenses are playing with reckless abandon. They have combined for eight quarterback sacks and nineteen penalties. Jets safety Jim Hudson is ejected (and later fined) for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Jim Turner's field goal with 1:05 left in the fourth quarter gives the Jets a 32-29 lead.

Then, the obligatory commercial break.

Nobody at home leaves the couch. Not even for a quick trip to the fridge. The way this game has been going, it's clear to all that are watching, anything can happen. And happen fast.

The football world braces itself for the broadcast to return to the action.

Fade to black. Cue the music. Voiceover:

"Welcome to NBC's world premier of 'Heidi' - the classic tale of a young girl's coming-of-age. A dramatic adaptation of Johanna Spyri's inspiring novel of friendship, family and love."

That's right, sportsfans, NBC - in it's infinite wisdom - decided it was more prudent to start 'Heidi' on time (east of the Rockies) than to broadcast the end of one of the best football games of the year.

And it wasn't even the Shirley Temple version!!

To add insult to injury (and outrage), NBC ran a ticker at the bottom of the screen with updates of the game.

And, naturally, the Raiders scored. It took all of twenty-two seconds for Lamonica to hit Charlie Smith in the end zone with a 43-yard touchdown pass.

To add more insult to more injury (and more outrage), the Jets fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Raiders scored again!

(I think that's what happened - at least that's what it said on the damn ticker!)

Final score: Raiders 43, Jets 32.

The phone lines at NBC lit up like - well, like the scoreboard at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum - with irate calls.

Famed syndicated columnist Art Buchwald summed it up best: "Men who wouldn't get out of their chairs during an earthquake rushed to the phones to scream obscenities".

My guess is there wasn't a single call that inspired anything resembling "friendship, family and love".

And all the while, Heidi was "coming-of-age".

The two teams met again a few weeks later in the AFL Championship game in New York. The Jets won 27-23 (and went on to an unlikely victory in Super Bowl III).

NBC's Sunday lineup had 'The New Adventures of Huck Finn' scheduled to begin at 7pm that day. I'll bet 'ol Huck didn't come-of-age until the end of that AFL Championship game.

* * * * *

We can all rest easy these days. Nothing like the "Heidi Game" will ever happen again.

NBC paid about six million dollars for the rights to broadcast AFL games in 1968.

Football was big business then, but so were children's movies like 'Heidi'.

FOX, ESPN, ABC and CBS paid about six HUNDRED million dollars (each!) for the rights to NFL games in 2001.

Football is a huge business now. Ain't no show gonna get in the way of those advertising dollars.

If some CBS executive decided to break away from a game in favor of a regularly scheduled broadcast, he'd have about '60 Minutes' to gather his belongings and get the heck out of the studio.

At Fox, you'd find 'Malcolm In The Middle' of a boardroom brawl if a high paying advertiser was shorted a thirty second spot aimed at a male, beer drinking demographic so some sitcom could start on time.

At ABC, there is no reason to believe they would ever pull the plug on a Monday Night Football game early. Half the country is asleep by halftime anyway.

And at ESPN…

"…We interrupt this broadcast to bring you the regularly scheduled end of this column".

*********************

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