Half a century ago, what former NBC broadcast supervisor Dick Cline believed to be just “another week of the NFL,” came an event that would forever alter how people experience live sports. It’s been 50 years since the famous ‘Heidi game’, a historic matchup between the American Football League rivals the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders on November 17th, 1968.
The showdown aired live on NBC and was famously nicknamed after Heidi, a movie about a young Swiss orphan, unceremoniously cut in to the game’s live broadcast. Cline was in charge of making sure the children’s movie aired on time – even if there was 1:05 seconds left in the game and the Jets are up 32-29.
That week in particular, NBC, the sales department and the telephone company confirmed that the 7:00-9:00 pm time slot had been sold to Timex. That slot was to be used to air Heidi and Cline was under strict instruction to make sure it aired at its allotted time.
“When the sales department said at 7:00 o’clock we have to go to Heidi, we didn’t think anything of it because a game never ran long, ” Cline said, as NFL games never ran over 7:00 pm in the past.
At 7 sharp, just as scheduled, Cline aired Heidi. Not long after, phone calls flooded the station, causing NBC’s switchboards to blow out. There was such a large volume of angry callers waiting to demand the game be put back on that the station required new fuses to keep the switchboards running. Many people called, but no one at the station could answer.
When asked if there were any complaints in particular that he could remember, Cline said that because of the rate at which the calls were coming in that caused issues with the switchboards, the calls couldn’t even be answered.
“They didn’t do a whole lot of talking,” Cline said jokingly.
One of the many incoming calls came from NBC’s president at the time, Julian Goodman. Goodman was eager for the game to be back on air and made efforts to contact Cline using a private line, but by then, there was nothing Cline could do.
“In 1968, there were no satellites, there were no cellphones. I had no way of getting back to the telephone company which was controlling the lines and telling them to go back to the game.”
As some viewers sat back and enjoyed Heidi, the Jets ended up blowing their lead. The Raiders scored two touchdowns in just nine seconds, winning 43-32. That’s when the wrath from fans really surfaced.
“They were more unnerved that not only did they not see the last minute and a half of the game, the Jets lost the game.”
Cline had been prepped by the network on how to handle situations where time runs over, but the Heidi game was the first time they experienced that. That game changed the standard for televised football games today, where the protocol now is to air the game until it is complete.
Looking back, Cline has no regrets about the decision he made to air Heidi instead of finishing the game. Though he didn’t see it as such at the time, that very choice changed the course of televised sports.