One of the most infamous moments in sports broadcasting is the 1968 “Heidi Game.” That Nov. 17, 1968 game between the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets, then the top two teams in the American Football League, was broadcast on NBC as part of their AFL package. (This was after the AFL-NFL merger had been agreed to in 1966, but before its 1970 implementation.)
But the network cut away from that late-running game at 7 p.m. Eastern to premiere a made-for-TV-movie, Heidi. That meant they missed the Raiders’ late comeback to win 43-32, and they prompted incredible amounts of viewer outrage. And now, 55 years to the week later, with the Raiders and Jets again playing on NBC (and somehow being featured on Sunday Night Football despite 4-5 and 4-4 records respectively), this week’s SNF broadcast opened with actress Jennifer Edwards (who starred as the titular Heidi 55 years ago in that John Williams-scored movie, which was an adaptation of an 1880 novel about a young girl’s experiences in the Swiss Alps) discussing that moment and the reaction to it:
NBC recognized the 55th anniversary of the 'Heidi Game' (also featuring the Jets and Raiders) with this @SNFonNBC opening essay from actress Jennifer Edwards, who starred in that movie. pic.twitter.com/4Q5t7Cb5SI
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) November 13, 2023
“I’m Jennifer Edwards, and 55 years ago this week, a movie I was in as a little girl kind of, how do I say this, got in the way of football. …Tonight, we’re going to get it right, and show you the whole game. But if the ending isn’t happily ever after for your team, don’t blame me.”
This is very well done by NBC to recognize and spotlight this anniversary. Even though it was an infamous moment for the network (and one even headlined in some obituaries of then-NBC president Julian Goodman more than 40 years later), it was one of the seminal moments of American sports broadcasting.
And, interestingly enough, network execs had decided to show the game until its finish and delay the movie. But the execs weren’t able to get that decision to the control room, as there were so many calls asking them not to that the network switchboard fused. That led to the switch-flip to Heidi. Here’s NBC’s news look at the aftermath there 55 years ago, on their weekly network newscast The Huntley-Brinkley Report:
The Heidi Game stood out for many reasons. One, it featured that incredible late comeback from the then-John Rauch-coached Raiders, who scored two touchdowns in nine seconds to win this one. Two, it showed off some of the talent in the AFL to a big national audience of those yet unfamiliar with the league. That would be on display again six weeks later when the Jets beat the Raiders in a rematch in the AFL Championship Game, which set them up to go on to their famous Super Bowl III win over the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in January 1969 that really proved the AFL’s bona fides.
Three, The Heidi Game and its reaction was a demonstration of just how much the American public cared about televised football even that early. And four, it was a great illustration of the importance of sticking with live sports broadcasts until the end whenever possible. Both of those elements have been seen down the decades.
Interestingly enough, 55 years after The Heidi Game, the early-cutaway issue still hasn’t been fully solved in the NFL. Earlier Sunday, some viewers missed the Hail Mary ending to the New Orleans Saints-Minnesota Vikings game thanks to early cutaways in some markets to ensure getting to the New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys kickoff on time. And that’s happened many times before.
But the Heidi case remains one of the most remarkable and most widespread early exits from a game. And it’s one that will be discussed for many more years to come. And it was notable to see NBC spotlight it this way around the corresponding matchup, and even get Edwards on board for this retrospective.
[Awful Announcing on Twitter]