Television’s First Sports Delay

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 [1]. 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” [2].

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 [3]. 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 [4].

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 [5]. 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” [6]. A few hundred phone calls were received throughout the evening and “the initial reaction seemed favorable” [7]. 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.

Works Cited:

1 “Lamonica Leads Surge: Raiders Pull Out 43-32 Win Over Jets in Frantic Windup.” Los Angeles Times. 18 Nov. 1968: F1.
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.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.

13 Replies to “Television’s First Sports Delay”

  1. …and would you believe it? That “Heidi” movie is available today, in “public domain”, on several “dollar DVD”‘s, if you know where to look for it….now you can watch it, and NEVER have to worry about a football game delaying it ever again!

  2. CBS intentionally allows the NFL to let their games run over on Sundays, because they KNOW that “60 MINUTES” always follows it; no matter what the start time [in some cases, it isn’t until 8:00pm(et) when “60 MINUTES” finally appears!], the network knows viewers will stick around for the rest of their Sunday night schedule after “60 MINUTES” (especially if there’s a profile of a football or sports celebrity included to keep sports fans tuned in, you can thank Sean McManus, president of CBS News AND Sports for that). That’s how CBS has been holding its own in the ratings on Sundays all these years….

  3. There’s nothing CBS shows on Sunday that I watch regularly these days but in the past I know it was frustrating trying to figure out exactly when the 10-11PM show was actually going to start. Would it be ten minutes late? Thirty minutes?

    There was at least one Sunday evening earlier this year when The Unit, usually shown from 10-11PM, didn’t start until close to 11PM and yet it still drew its typical eight or nine million viewers. That couldn’t have helped its renewal chances, though, because it was so often outside of prime time by twenty or thirty minutes.

    As for Heidi being available on those cheap public domain DVDs, there must have been at least a half dozen listed at Amazon. Many of them, however, had reviews suggesting that the opening portion of the movie had been cut out for some strange reason.

  4. The next night on the “Huntley-Brinkley Report”, NBC showed the videotape of the final two dramatic Oakland touchdowns that East Coast audiences missed. Curt Gowdy had to do a recreation of his play by play calls for the clips shown.

    Ironically that part of the game which irate viewers didn’t get to see is the ONLY surviving portion of the actual game telecast because it was shown the next night on the evening news (as the Vanderbilt Television News Archive has the newscast) while the original game broadcast, like so much vintage sports material done by NBC in the 60s, was erased and wiped out of existence.

  5. I know. It is too bad that some AFL games weren’t kept. NBC should have kept a lot more football and baseball games from the 60’s to 1977 than they did, especially playoff games.

    Speaking of the Heidi situation, NBC had another situation like this in 1975. On Sunday, November 23rd, they had the network TV debut of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory scheduled at 7:00 p.m. However, the 4:00 national game that evening, [email protected], went into OT, pushing back the start of the movie by 45 minutes. NBC learned their lesson from seven years before.

    1. “Willy Wonka” had its television premiere almost a year earlier on Thanksgiving 1974. I remember watching it with some of my cousins at my grandparents’ house while the adults watched a rerun of THE WALTONS “Thanksgiving Story”, where John Boy was injured in a “freak accident”, downstairs on the living room tv.

      I remember my grandmother loved THE WALTONS and was even watching it when my grandfather died a few years later. I couldn’t stand the show when I was a kid, but it does hold some nostalgic value for me now as an adult though, and I watched a few of the later Waltons tv movies during the 90s.

  6. I was watching the Heidi game and remember it vividly (except for the part I never saw). The Jets and Raiders were, along with the Kansas City Chiefs, the best teams in the AFL in those days, and whenever one played the other, it was a great game. The Jets and Raiders had a history of acrimony, and their games were often filled with penalties, fights, etc. The Raiders only lost one regular-season game in ’67, and it was to the Jets. This game was also a wild one, with the lead going back and forth all day. There was lots of passing and lots of penalties, which made it a very long game by 1968 standards. Jim Turner had just kicked a field goal with about a minute left to give the Jets a 32-29 lead. The Raiders ran back the ensuing kickoff and had run one play when NBC pulled the plug. I remember Curt Gowdy saying, “And it looks like there’s gonna be a face-mask penalty on the Jets…” before they switched to Heidi. I think the first “lost” Oakland touchdown, on a pass from Daryle Lamonica to Charlie Smith, was on the very next play. That put Oakland in the lead 36-32. Then Earl Christy of the Jets fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Raiders’ Preston Ridlehuber recovered it for another TD. Nobody in the East Coast saw any of it until the next morning.
    The ironic part of it all personally is that I was then a Jets fan (primarily because of Joe Namath) but became a Raiders fan a couple of years later, and remain so.

  7. This NFL game has been endlessly mythologized over the years, yet NBC made the right decision in cutting away from the game and switching over to the Timex presentation of HEIDI. HEIDI had been lavishly produced, heavily promoted, expensively sponsored by Timex, and it ended up garnering a blockbuster 31.8/47% share that evening, far and above what an ‘NFL Overrun’ would have attracted in those days.

    Mr. Pete Rozelle and the NFL turned this whole bruhaha and the switchboard-flooding in a few cities into a negotiation ploy that forevermore enshrined ‘NFL Football Overruns’ into Sunday primetime, wreaking havoc on those viewers seeking on-time starting entertainment options on the east coast (made even more complicated for timeshifers in the VCR/DVR era).

    Yes, the ‘NFL Overruns’ score nicely today in the context of the 1,000 channel universe, and entertainment program ratings today are a fraction of what they were in the late sixties. But back then, ‘NFL Overruns’ more often than not were comparatively lowly rated on a national basis, and when introduced, they wreaked havoc on schedule-makers and sponsors ensuring their programs and messages were seen by the targeted audience.

  8. The Heidi game and its aftermath symbolized the way that sports were beginning to dominate TV programming. I feel sure that other sports broadcasts had been terminated early in favor of regular programming, but it never seemed to matter much until then. And of course it NEVER happened again, because no network ever cut away from a game again. Even the Heidi game wouldn’t have been nearly as big a deal had it not been such an exciting game, and had the unseen finish not been so astounding.

  9. I suspect the earlier San Diego/Buffalo game might have been shown to conclusion outside New York and San Francisco/Oakland (as I don’t think the AFL had local blackouts until the first post-merger TV deals took effect in 1970).

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