"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, October 21, 2013

TV's growing pains with "Heidi Game" (1968)

Remember the monoculture? It was the days when kids would show up at school the morning after a popular TV show and discuss it. One such show was "Night Gallery," an extension of the earlier "Twilight Zone."
TV entertainment was on the "big three" networks. You might watch "Gunsmoke" instead of "The Virginian" but it didn't really matter. The two shows were essentially the same, using the Old West to impress Judeo-Christian ethics, while at the same time our national government was prosecuting an immoral and tragic war in Southeast Asia.
Such was the backdrop for us boomers.
Football was coming into its own. Football and television proved to be the perfect marriage. But the media world was so much different then. In the days of the monoculture, we had no pay-per-view, VHS, DVD, TiVo, record, rewind or 700 channels.
The networks NBC, ABC and CBS dominated. The people in charge of those networks could just as well have been on Mount Olympus. Walter Cronkite was "the most trusted man in America," as if we needed such a national guru of sorts. Our media were destined to evolve radically.
And, football has been a beneficiary throughout. It has become the ultimate golden goose.
Certain growing pains were bound to be felt. What happened on November 17, 1968, was probably inevitable. The TV operations had to learn how to accommodate football within their other programming.
Network TV normally followed a rigid schedule. Football was thus sort of a square peg having to be fit in a round hole. Football doesn't follow a script. The duration of games cannot be predicted. The game between the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders on 11/17 of '68 was the ultimate growing pain.
Games at that time rarely went longer than 2 1/2 hours. NBC allotted three hours for the game. Lots of scoring developed. Injuries and penalties cropped up as these American Football League (AFL) rivals did battle in Oakland. These circumstances extended the game's length.
The end was thrilling with Oakland scoring two touchdowns in the final minute to overcome a 32-29 New York lead.
The TV network fell into a quandary that looks quaint today.
Television in those days had to try to appeal to everyone. It's the reason why so much TV entertainment of the time was decried as lacking substance. We heard the term "boob tube." Anyone who would speak of the "boob tube" today would be considered irrational. The rainbow of TV programming today appeals to all tastes.
In 1968, rabid football fans were a definite and important segment of the TV audience. But their interests couldn't rule. Networks had to walk a tightrope in which sports had to be balanced with so-called "family entertainment."
By the same token, people like Cronkite had to walk a tightrope which had them hopefully not giving a hint of their political beliefs. That's why it was so historic when Cronkite did his little opinion segment on the Viet Nam War, as if we needed him to say anything revelatory. It got LBJ's attention who then said something like "If I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost America."
Today the people who populate TV news on cable are political as can be. You choose your flavor.
Back in 1968, a network would plug a weekend prime time program like they were trying to get all of America to watch. And they were. The Jets vs. Raiders game was supposed to be a lead-in to the heavily-promoted airing of "Heidi," the Johanna Spyri children's classic.
Problem was, the show was promised to all of America as beginning at 7 p.m. EST. We here in Morris would get it at 6 p.m.
As I recall, cable TV was still new in Morris. We called it the "able cable" then. Out in our neighborhood on the northern fringe, we had to wait a while to get it. This is the reason my interest in the Vikings was delayed. I remember little about the Joe Kapp year and our first Super Bowl for Minnesota. It was shortly after that we got cable.
TV viewers scheduled their day around events like "Heidi." It wasn't like today in which popular movies get re-run frequently on the cable channels, so if you miss a certain airing, or part of it, it's no big deal at all.
I have actually gotten tired of "Happy Gilmore" (Adam Sandler), an excellent comedy movie which I think has gotten over-exposed. Ditto "The Karate Kid." Charlton Heston in the WWII movie "Midway" gets a little old too.
We're so spoiled! In the '60s you really had to be paying attention so as not to miss a favorite show. Thus, NBC was walking on eggshells as it considered how to proceed with the evening programming on that November date.
"Heidi" was promoted to "family" audiences everywhere. Interest in football was substantial but not overwhelming.
Making history, even if unintended
How to proceed? The day's decisionmaking has become the stuff of history books. It appears under the title "The Heidi Game."
The "Heidi" airing had been promoted heavily in commercials and in the print media. "Heidi" is the story of the little Swiss girl who lives with her grandfather in the Alps. NBC executives had stated to everyone in their system that "Heidi" must start as scheduled.
Julian Goodman was the executive who was the equivalent to Zeus on Mount Olympus, making this proclamation. Sports Executive Producer Don "Scotty" Connal relayed the decree to game producer Don Ellis, who sensed trouble. Ellis said he'd been trained to never leave a game in progress.
Connal emphasized to Ellis that the time had been "sold" for "Heidi." Nothing would stand in the way of that little Swiss girl - except of course the execs would find that football fans were more of a force to be reckoned with than they had imagined.
Ellis was the perceptive one. He was too much of a "small fish" to affect anything. Football fans ended up being the really "big fish" in this story.
The execs probably knew that fandom was an appreciable force. But again, these guys were walking that tightrope in which they were trying to be all things to all people. These were the days of "watered down entertainment" like "Gilligan's Island." You could say "boob tube" and not get an argument.
People would be in denial about how much TV they watched. People generally weren't proud of their TV viewing.
Football entertainment was real and not contrived, not watered down for the "least common denominator." Sports fans were less abashed than most people admitting their TV viewing. Such fans came out in force after November 18, 1968, insisting that their viewing preference not be "balanced" with some innocuous "family" show."
NBC had broken away from the Jets-Raiders game with the Jets still leading, to air "Heidi" at the promised 7 p.m. EST time. Mr. Ellis surely knew the tempest that was going to come.
Actually the top execs themselves began to sense trouble while the game was still on. What happened was a confusing entanglement of failed or confusing communication, in that time long before the "communications revolution," back when people still talked about "switchboards."
A brewing dilemma
As 7 p.m. approached, the public began calling in, curious as to how the schedule would proceed, and not all favoring the football game! The top execs, now presumably perspiring heavily, decided the football had to air, but because of the busy "switchboards," were unable to communicate effectively with their minions.
"Heidi" appeared on the screen as per original scheduling. It pre-empted the final moments of the football game in the eastern half of the U.S. Fans missed two Oakland touchdowns that turned the game around.
The incident led to change in the way pro games are shown on network TV. Games are shown to their conclusion. Special phones were installed that came to be known as "Heidi phones." These were connected to a different phone exchange from other network phones.
In 1997, the Heidi Game was voted the most memorable regular season game in pro football history.
The Raiders and Joe Namath's jets were founding members of the AFL. The launch was in 1960. The Jets were originally the "Titans."
Al Davis' Raiders needed a win over the Jets in week 11 of 1968 to avoid falling 1 1/2 games behind the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFL West. Finishing second would end their season. Meanwhile the Jets could clinch at least a tie for the AFL East title with a win in week 11. There were no wild card teams.
Kickoff time was 4 p.m. EST.
"Heidi" was going to pre-empt "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color," the normal show for that time. Color was still worth promoting. I watched a B&W television set through my elementary school years, as did lots of boomer kids. The later TV show "Police Squad" with Leslie Nielsen (in his comedy incarnation) poked fun at that earlier time by proclaiming it was "in color."
Remember the NBC Peacock that would announce a "color" program? We're so spoiled today, and today we seek "high definition." I remember when we'd sometimes watch a TV show out of Garden City SD under some "snow" on the screen.
The western half of the U.S. was OK for watching both the game and "Heidi." It was the east that got flummoxed.
Interestingly, the game was blacked out within 90 miles of Oakland even though it was a sellout! Politicians eventually went to work on such things. The puppetmasters with pro football knew that scarcity or the perception of scarcity was important for making an entertainment product valuable. Remember the days of "closed circuit" heavyweight boxing matches?
What happened if you planned to watch "Heidi" but missed it? You couldn't count on a re-run or check out the VHS tape. Certain blockbuster movies might get aired periodically on the networks (like "The Time Machine"). Outside that circle, it would be "tough luck."
The doors would eventually swing open, thanks to technology, for endless and obscure movies to find new eyeballs. But in 1968 we could hardly envision it. It was the days of the monoculture.
The Jets and Raiders battled with frequent pass attempts. The clock stopped with each incompletion. There were 19 penalties, each stopping the clock. Each team used all six of the allotted timeouts.
The many scores led to commercial breaks. At halftime, worries were already looming about the transition to prime-time non-sports programming.
As the fourth quarter began, at 6:20 EST, the top execs sensed trouble. Promo spots for "Heidi" kept appearing. People nervously glanced at watches. Phone lines got over-taxed. The communication snafu stood in the way of a resolution. Fuses blew.
The western U.S. could continue watching the game. The eastern half saw that little girl on the Swiss mountain. Fans got on the phone, some even calling the New York City Police, to vent!
NBC finally flashed the game's final score on the screen, just as Heidi's paralyzed cousin Klara was taking her first slow steps. This in turn prompted complaints from non-sports fans who resented this intrusion!
Ah, the perils of trying to be all things to all people. Such was the lot of TV professionals up through the '60s and into the '70s.
"The Heidi Game" didn't lead to complete resolution of the problems. In 1975, NBC announced "Willy Wonka" for its 7 p.m. time slot but it was delayed 45 minutes because of the Raiders/Redskins game going into overtime. I don't think "Redskins" was an issue as a name yet, nor were you required to wear your seat belt, nor were you prohibited from smoking in most places. The Dustin Hoffman character in "All the President's Men" smoked on an elevator.
NBC got many angry calls about the delay for "Willy Wonka" (with Gene Wilder).
Super Bowl: still young in '68
In 1968 the football playoffs were going to lead to Super Bowl III. Yes, just "Three!"
The Jets met the Raiders again on a windy December day at Shea Stadium, NYC, to determine who'd go on to the Super Bowl. The Jets won 27-23, earning the right to face and defeat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. The Colts were favored by an almost unheard-of 19 1/2 points, so I don't really blame conspiracy theorists who claim the game was "thrown."
Oh, to go back in a time machine and make a bet on the Jets!
For the record, the final score in the "Heidi Game" was 43-32, the Raiders up on the Jets, at least for that day. History was made. Sometimes the game is referred to as "Heidi Bowl." I don't accept that, as there was nothing bowl-ish about the game.
Newton Minow once bemoaned TV as a "vast wasteland." It indeed deserved this dubious stamp in my youth, not at all today.
Addendum: "Heidi" was the name of our family dog from 1980 to 1996. God bless her memory.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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