No young woman has had more of an effect on NFL TV coverage than Heidi.
Yes, the heroine of the children’s classic. In 1968, she had much of football nation in an uproar when she interrupted the final minutes of the Jets game at Oakland.
Fans of the AFL, which already had agreed to a merger with the NFL but still was playing games only within its confines, might recall the “Heidi” game as one of the most memorable in the league’s 10-year history. Problem was, nearly all of those fans never saw the closing rally by the Raiders.
The teams already were fierce rivals — Raiders defensive end Ben Davidson playing dirty with Jets quarterback Joe Namath, for example — when they met on Nov 17. When the Jets held a 32-29 lead, the hour was approaching 7 p.m. on the East Coast.
A big decision faced NBC, which televised the AFL back then. The network had been heavily advertising the film “Heidi” and knew that a wide audience, particularly of children who might not be able to stay up too late that night, was awaiting the telecast. NBC had what was called a “firm commitment” to show Heidi on schedule.
But the Jets and Raiders weren’t cooperating.
So Scotty Connal, the network’s executive producer of sports, called his boss, Carl Lindemann, for instructions. Lindemann, in turn, called NBC President Julian Goodman, who told his underlings that cutting off the game was “crazy, a terrible idea.”
Connal was told to stick with the football until it ended. But he was unable to get through to the New York operations department, and it was closing in on 7 p.m. EST. So he called the game’s production truck in Oakland, telling the producer to work through the network’s Burbank, California, studio and make sure Jets-Raiders stayed on the air.
Then the game went to a commercial break at 32-29 in favor of New York.
The message got to Burbank and was relayed to New York. The orders didn’t mesh with what Don Cline, the board operator in New York, had been given. So he phoned Connal — only to get a busy signal, even though Connal had two phone lines. Connal was still talking with the production truck in Oakland and with Lindemann.
Cline opted to follow the previous, strict orders that Heidi must have her evening.
At 7 p.m. EST, the film came on the air — even as the Raiders staged one of the most dramatic rallies in AFL history, winning 43-32.
NBC’s switchboard blew a circuit from all the irate complaints phoned in. Lindemann, still on the phone with Connal, roared at him, “Where has our football game gone?”
It hadn’t gone anywhere; it still was being played. Only America was watching “Heidi.”
Where the Jets and Raiders went from their encounter with Heidi can be summed up quickly. New York won the AFC title game at Shea Stadium and then upset the Colts in perhaps the most significant Super Bowl of them all. The Jets haven’t been to a Super Bowl since.
The Raiders got to the big game and won it in 1977 against Minnesota, and also took the league title in the 1981 and 1984 Super Bowls.
Heidi’s impact has been felt ever since that Sunday evening the TV tubes went from the Black Hole to the Alps. Never again would a nationally televised NFL game not be shown to its conclusion. Sure, games that are routs might be replaced late in the proceedings with another game. Not even “60 Minutes” or “The Simpsons,” however, take precedent over NFL telecasts.