- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

As sort of a marvelously ironic anniversary present to veteran fans, cable’s new NFL Network tonight at 9 will present “Heidi,” the infamous children’s movie that knocked a football thriller off NBC on Nov.17, 1968, and sparked so many calls from fans that the network’s switchboard in New York blew 26 fuses.

The New York Jets were leading the Oakland Raiders 32-29 with 1:05 to play at Oakland Coliseum when the game disappeared from TV screens across the country in favor of a made-for-TV flick relating the adventures, if that’s the word, of a little girl living with her grandfather in the Swiss Alps.

Of course, the Raiders then scored two touchdowns in the final minute to win 43-32. But in those days of very limited replays, most viewers didn’t get to see the frenetic finish until it was shown the following evening on the network’s Huntley-Brinkley Report.

Much earlier, Timex had purchased two hours of time to show the highly publicized movie at 7p.m. EST. The game began at 4, and no one expected a problem because, recalled NBC operations supervisor Dick Cline, “no game had ever gone past 7.”

Nowadays, when NFL contests routinely take 3:15 to 3:30 to unfold, no executive would make that kind of mistake. But football never had been shown in prime time — this was, remember, two years before Roone Arledge conceived “ABC Monday Night Football” — and the idea of a conflict didn’t register with TV people.

The situation produced some side effects that seem funny now but weren’t then. For instance, when Jets defensive back Johnny Sample called home and told his family the team had lost, his father snapped, “Stop joking.”

As 7 p.m. approached and it became obvious the game wouldn’t end on time, Cline called network vice president Scott Connal for instructions. Passing the buck neatly, Connal told Cline he would contact NBC president Julian Goodman for permission to stay with the game.

Cline was told to sit tight, but neither Goodman nor Connal called back immediately with instructions. So at this particular witching hour, Cline ordered that the movie be shown as scheduled.

Not everybody moaned and groaned at the switch. Said Delbert Mann, who directed the movie: “The fallout from NBC’s decision was the best thing that ever happened to ‘Heidi.’ It’s kept it alive all these years.”

The game featured a thrilling passing duel between the Jets’ Joe Namath and the Raiders’ Daryle Lamonica, clearly the two best quarterbacks in the old American Football League. The Jets were on their 43 when the game yielded to a commercial, a station break and “Heidi.” Then the phone rang in Cline’s command center, and a voice said, “This is Julian Goodman. Go back to the game.”

Sorry, folks. In those pre-satellite days, telecasts were carried through telephone lines. When Cline ordered the movie to be shown, the actual switch was performed by what he later called “an anonymous phone company engineer somewhere in Iowa.” There was no way to restore the game.

While Heidi and her grandfather began doing whatever Swiss families of that era did, Lamonica threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Smith, putting the Raiders ahead 36-32 with 42 seconds to play. That was bad enough for the Jets, but widely unfamed special teamer Preston Ridlehuber recovered a New York fumble and scored on the following kickoff to complete Oakland’s last-minute blitz.

Let’s review the numbers.

Two touchdowns in nine seconds.

No NBC telecast.

Twenty-six blown fuses.

That night Goodman issued an apology to viewers, calling the gaffe “a forgivable error committed by humans who were expecting to see ‘Heidi’ at 7p.m.” He added, somewhat self-servingly, “I missed the end of the game as much as anyone else.”

Which begs the question: Why didn’t Goodman return Cline’s call sooner if he was aware of the situation? Could he have been watching another network?

Syndicated columnist Art Buchwald described the subsequent howling and yowling this way: “Men who wouldn’t get out of their chairs in an earthquake rushed to the phone to scream obscenities [at the network].”

Thereby, we may assume, making blue the dominant color in the NBC peacock’s tail feathers.

Obviously, the network learned a valuable lesson. Seven years later, when a game between the Raiders and Washington Redskins went into overtime, NBC stayed with it and missed the start of another children’s movie, “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

On tonight’s anniversary telecast, the NFL Network will show both the movie and Oakland’s then-unseen two touchdowns, as well as interviews with some of the participants. But shouldn’t NBC, the network that mucked things up, be murmuring a few corporate mea culpas of its own?

It’s interesting, from the prospective of several decades, to reflect on how the “Heidi” fiasco provided more evidence of America’s obsession with pro football on TV that had started 10 years earlier with the sudden-death NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants. The Jets’ shocking upset of the Colts in Super Bowl III in January 1969 and the start of “Monday Night Football” a year later pushed the sport even further into the nation’s sporting consciousness.

No longer is there any doubt the NFL reigns supreme on America’s sports scene and screen — and the “Heidi” game was a significant, if inadvertent, milepost on its road to the top.

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