Broadcasting live sports on television comes with its share of headaches. Even in timed sports like basketball, football and hockey, the possibility of overtime lurks like a demon, baring its fangs and threatening to disrupt the programming schedule, and the commercial log. The ability to make split-second decisions separates the men from the boys, while one false move can bring forth the hellfire. Irate advertisers whose commercials didn't run reach for the cell phones and crucify their account reps. Confused and irritated viewers melt the switchboards of their local affiliates, spewing undeserved venom at weekend receptionists. Program directors find themselves with time to fill, or even worse: a 20-minute block in which a 30-minute program must be aired. Mention "The Heidi Game" to any Raiders or Jets fan over the age of 40 and you'll see what I mean.
One Sunday in November of 1968, the Oakland Raiders were battling the New York Jets; Joe Namath and Daryl Lamonica were embroiled in a classic battle of quarterbacks. The Jets had taken a 32-29 lead on a field goal with just over a minute left to play. The stage was set for a national television audience to view the dramatic ending to a passionately disputed contest Ã? but instead, the game being broadcast from Oakland Coliseum was yanked in favor of the film Heidi. Expecting to see the Raiders trying to get in good enough field position to kick the game-winner but getting the tale of a Swiss Miss instead sent football fans into a tizzy. NBC's studio lines were so busy that misguided fans called the newspapers, the phone company and even the police. You just have to ask how such a faux pas could possibly take place, how a network could possibly commit such a costly fumble.
Well, there's an answer. Heidi had been exhaustively promoted on NBC and was sure to be a ratings winner, and thinking of all those disappointed children didn't sit well with NBC exec Dick Cline. When the 7:00 hour hit the East Coast and the football game was not finished, Cline made the decision that will forever live in infamy among pigskin fans: to cut away from the game during a commercial break and run Heidi. Had the game reached a less-than-thrilling conclusion and ended in a 3-point victory for the Jets, this decision might not have bitten NBC so squarely in its ass. However, the Raiders scored two touchdowns in the final minute to upend the Jets Ã? and nobody on the East Coast saw it go down. Further compounding the problem was that the Jets and Raiders were both part of the AFL, which had just started to threaten the NFL when it came to football excitement and supremacy. The Jets/Raiders contest was to show how far AFL football had come, and the ending did nothing to make television viewers hungry for more AFL football.
You may be thinking that the Heidi game took place in the late '60s, and such a disaster couldn't be repeated. The high-tech world of television programming surely must run more smoothly these days, yes? No. In the early evening of Sunday, June 13, three golfers were tied for the lead at the 2004 Buick Classic. A playoff hole was aired on ABC; all three players made birdie, sending it to another sudden-death playoff hole. The slow-moving tournament naturally ran long, and the 7:00 hour was near.
Hopefully you don't already know this, but the incorrectly named America's Funniest Home Videos airs each Sunday night at 7:00. Golf fans thought they would be watching the thrilling conclusion to a tournament, but were instead confronted by Saget-inspired mayhem. You know the routine: footballs to the groin, wedding dresses catching on fire, babies kissing each other in that oh-so-cute manner.
When NBC pulled the Heidi gaffe, the switchboard lit up with drunken football fans. You know the difference between a beer buzz and a hard-liquor one? I'd be willing to wager that operators who were unfortunately standing by on that fateful November night in '68 had to deal with the moronic passion of quite a few beer-drinkers. (Picture Barney from The Simpsons with his barely-intelligible yelping and you've probably got the right idea.) Golfers and golf fans are a different breed, though. Golfers are typically a scotch-sipping bunch, and that leads to some seriously bitter invective when things go awry. In every market that aired Funniest Home Videos instead of the sudden-death playoff, I can almost guarantee you that at least one phone call came in to the ABC affiliate that sounded something like this:
"Listen up close, you overpaid phone monkey. This will be the last voice you hear in that incompetent head of yours. Put the golf back on the television right now. You want to talk about sudden death? You'll be wishing for it when my sand wedge is beating you about your genitals, you scumbag. PUT THE FREAKING GOLF BACK ON THE TELEVISION, DAMN YOU!"
I don't know which would be worse to encounter: a multitude of angry yet ignorant football fans who are able to do little more than curse, or the bitter, alcoholic golf fans who had a few playoff holes taken away from them. Either way, it blows my mind that these television networks would make the decisions they did when faced with airing the completion of live sporting events versus Heidi and/or America's Funniest Home Videos.
Every future televised game I watch will be accompanied by the fear that somehow I will miss the exciting ending. As long as I watch sports on television (and I'm planning on it being a long-ass time), I will forever dread hearing this phrase:
"Well folks, this has been a doozy. The Orlando Magic are in quintuple overtime against the Los Angeles Lakers in this deciding game seven of the NBA finals. We'd love to show you the last overtime period ... but we just got a call from the big boss and here comes the lost Golden Girls episode where Estelle Getty masturbates with an eggplant. Enjoy!"