Football and television fans alike know of the infamous “Heidi Game” that took place on Sunday, November 17th, 1968 on NBC. An American Football League game between the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders began at 4PM. At 7PM, Heidi, a made-for-TV movie starring Jennifer Edwards and based on Johanna Spyri’s classic story, was scheduled to begin. What happened at 7PM has become part of television history. But nobody remembers what took place just four weeks later on another Sunday when another football game threatened to run long.
First, a little history of the Heidi Game. On November 17th, NBC went to commercial shortly before 7PM with just over a minute left on the clock. The Jets were ahead 32-29. But NBC never returned to the game, instead switching to Heidi promptly at 7PM. The game, of course, continued and during that final minute the Raiders were able to make a shocking comeback, score two touchdowns and win 43-32. There were supposedly contractual issues involved with the sponsor of Heidi that meant NBC had to broadcast the made-for-TV movie from 7-10PM.
Football fans in much of the country were incensed. On the West Coast, viewers missed the first of the touchdowns due to a commercial break but were able to watch the second . NBC attempted to make up for not showing the final minute of the game by running a banner along the bottom of the screen informing viewers of the outcome. A second banner was run just as Heidi’s paralyzed cousin was trying to walk, leading critic Jack Gould to suggest that “when it comes to doing the wrong thing at the wrong moment, N.B.C. should receive a headless Emmy for last night’s fiasco” .
According to The New York Times, the game ran from exactly 4:03PM to 7:10PM, extended by penalties and time-outs. Furthermore, the paper reported that NBC had actually cut off the end of its earlier Sunday football game between the San Diego Chargers and the Buffalo Bills (which had started at 1:30PM) at 4PM in order to broadcast the beginning the Oakland-Jets game . Reportedly, NBC executives had tried to get through to programmers to tell them not to cut to Heidi but couldn’t. For the record, Heidi ranked 1st for the week with a 31.8/47 Nielsen rating .
Four weeks later, on Sunday, December 15th, NBC broadcast another AFL football game, between the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers. It started at 4PM. At 7PM the network had an episode of The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn scheduled. This time, the network had no contractual issues forcing it to start its regular programming promptly at 7PM. The network could have easily allowed the football game to run over and then cut to The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn “already in progress,” effectively erasing the necessary minutes.
Instead, NBC decided to shift its entire schedule to accommodate the game, which ran eight minutes and 40 seconds long. Thus, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn began at 7:08PM (and 40 seconds). Its entire prime time line-up didn’t end until 11:08PM. Announcements were made throughout the evening to inform viewers of the time shift . The New York Times reported that NBC officials believed this to be the very first time a network had pushed its entire line-up back.
According to Bill Byers, with the NBC press office, the move was “an experiment to see if it works, if people like it” . A few hundred phone calls were received throughout the evening and “the initial reaction seemed favorable” . The network allowed its affiliates to either run their own programs long or cut them short. WNBC-TV in New York City opted to run late.
Today, the networks have different ways to try to deal with sports overruns, which primarily take place on Sundays. FOX pads its Sunday line-up with a half-hour program called The OT that can be filled with analysis or used for overrun. CBS routinely pushes its Sunday line-up back thirty, forty or even fifty minutes to make room for overrun. Occasionally, repeats will be joined in progress because they are less important than first run programming in the Nielsens.
2 Gould, Jack. “TV: Heidi v. Sports Fans.” New York Times. 18 Nov. 1968: 94.
3 Rogers, Thomas. “Jets Cut for ‘Heidi’; TV Fans Complain.” New York Times. 18 Nov. 1968: 1.
4 “NBC holds thing ratings lead in Nielsen nationals.” Broadcasting. 2 Dec. 1968: 39.
5 Lubasch, Arnold H. “N.B.C. Shows Run 8 Minutes Late.” New York Times. 16 Dec. 1968: 56.