For football fans, November 17, 1968 was shaping up to be one hell of a game. The second-best team in the world Oakland Raiders if the results of Super Bowl II were any indication, against the future American Football League champion and Super Bowl III winner, New York Jets.
NBC executives were thrilled. The AFL was only eight years old in 1968 and as yet unproven, compared with the older league. The NFL/AFL merger was still two years in the future.
This game was expected to keep viewers in their seats, adding to the already large audience anticipated for the 7:00pm presentation of Heidi, a modern remake of the children’s classic story from 1880.
In those days, most pro football games were played in 2½ hours. Network executives scheduled this one, for three. The contract with Heidi prime sponsor Timex specified a 7:00 start. And so the order went down, to network affiliates. There will be no delays.
The game didn’t disappoint, In fact it was voted among the ten most memorable games in professional football history in 1997, and the most memorable regular season contest, ever. The rivalry between the two clubs was intense, a high-scoring game where the lead changed, no fewer than eight times.
As early as 6:20, network brass began to worry that the game wouldn’t end on time. 7:00 arrived with a minute & five seconds left to play. The Jets were ahead, 32-29.
Network and affiliate switchboards began to light up, with fans demanding the game be broadcast in its entirety. Others wanted to know if Heidi would begin, on time.
NBC Sports executive producer Don “Scotty” Connal and network president Julian Goodman had by this time agreed to “slide the network”, to begin Heidi as soon as Curt Gowdy signed off from the game.
All well and good but by this time, phone switchboards were jammed. Solid. NBC’s CIrcle-7 phone exchange blew twenty-six fuses, in one hour. NYPD switchboards, broke down. Broadcast Operations Control (BOC) supervisor Dick Cline nervously watched the clock as Connal frantically redialed, but couldn’t get through.
The television audience watched Oakland running back Charlie Smith return the kickoff from the end zone to the Oakland 22-yard line with 1:01 remaining on the clock. And then the feed was broken.
Heads exploded across the nation as callers reached out to newspapers and television stations, even local police departments, to demand the score. And Loooord, did they bitch. Humorist Art Buchwald wrote “Men who wouldn’t get out of their chairs in an earthquake rushed to the phone to scream obscenities [at the network].”
Meanwhile, the Oakland Raiders staged the most amazing come-from-behind rally in the history of sports, scoring two touchdowns in 42 seconds. Gamblers were apoplectic on learning the news, that the Raiders had beat the 7½ point spread.
The film was just reaching a most tear-jerking moment as Heidi’s paralyzed cousin Clara was taking her first halting steps, as NBC broke in: “SPORTS BULLETIN: RAIDERS DEFEAT JETS 43-32”.
If half the nation hated NBC at that moment, now the other half did, as well. Sportswriter Jack Clary quipped, “The football fans were indignant when they saw what they had missed. The Heidi audience was peeved at having an ambulatory football score intrude on one of the story’s more touching moments. Short of pre-empting Heidi for a skin flick, NBC could not have managed to alienate more viewers that evening.”
The “Heidi Bowl” was prime time news the following night, on all three networks. NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report aired the last sixty seconds. ABC Evening News anchor Frank Reynolds read excerpts from the movie, with clips of the Raiders’ two touchdowns cut in. CBS Evening News’ Harry Reasoner announced the “result” of the game: “Heidi married the goat-herder“.
NBC had no option but self-mockery, to redeem itself from the fiasco. One testimonial read “I didn’t get a chance to see it, but I hear it was great”. It was signed by Joe Namath.
A special “Heidi phone” was installed in the BOC, to prevent future such disasters. In 2005, TV Guide listed the Heidi Bowl at #6 of the “100 Most Unexpected TV Moments” in television history.
Actress Jennifer Edwards in the title role of the film, may have the final word in this story: “My gravestone is gonna say, ‘She was a great moment in sports’”.