Forty years have elapsed since the infamous “Heidi Game,” which means that most of you readers will have absolutely no clue as to what I am talking about. The game, played on November 17, 1968, was an important AFL match up between the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders, with both teams being at the peak of their all-time popularity and both sporting a 7-2 record for the season. It was a smash-mouth battle involving the two great arms of the time as the opposing quarterbacks, Joe Namath and Darryl Lamonica. As the exciting game ground to completion, with 65 seconds left in the game, the Jets led the defending champion Raiders 32-29.
NBC was broadcasting the game nationwide, and thought the game was decided. They had scheduled a broadcast of the children’s story Heidi at that time, so they pulled the plug on the football game, evoking justifiable ire and outrage among the viewing audience. Even if no more scoring was to take place, the fans deserved to see the end of the game, but there was more scoring. Lots more. In one of the greatest comebacks in professional football history, the Raiders scored 14 points in the final 65 seconds, winning the game 43-32. America suddenly had a new enemy, and it wasn’t the North Vietnamese—it was NBC.
The ensuing furious response actually broke the NBC switchboard the next morning.
What the hell does this have to do with anything in 2008? Well, we have a new enemy, and it is not Al Qaeda—it is ESPN/ABC.
The Disney-owned entertainment conglomerate chose to cut away from the Penn State-Oregon State game with practically a whole quarter remaining. Penn State was leading 45-7 at the time. Sure, it seemed like the Nittany Lions had the game well in hand, but being Penn State fans, we wanted to see Pat Devlin and some of the clean jerseys in action. From ABC’s perspective, it was a blowout, it was the primary national game on ABC for most of the country, and no doubt a lot of advertising revenue was at stake if viewers tuned out. In the Turkey’s Cave, we scrambled, looking around the satellite channels and not finding anything. There ensued a mad dash to get computers set up to listen to Steve Smith and Jack Ham doing the radio broadcast, which took a while and was distracting as hell. By that time it was 45-14, which would turn out to be the final score. We completely missed Jerome Hayes’ injury, which we had to read about in the morning news.
I can only imagine that the various viewing parties around the country were scenes of bemused chaos. ABC/ESPN protected their revenue, but what about people who walked out of bars around the country an hour or so earlier than they would have if the game were carried to completion? Doesn’t Disney have some responsibility to those small businesses and to the ordinary viewer? Or is it all about commercial revenue?