The "Heidi" game in Birmingham

This month marks the 40th anniversary of an event that changed the way the networks handled televised sports. However, because of the peculiarity of Birmingham's TV scene in 1968, what transpired here must have been quite different than what was going on at network affiliates in the rest of the country. First, some background information.

We are talking about the afternoon of November 17, 1968, when NBC was broadcasting a much-anticipated American Football League game pitting the New York Jets against the Oakland Raiders. The game had begun at 4 p.m. Eastern Time (or 3 p.m. here, of course). Then, as now, it was common for sporting events to run past their scheduled ending time, so NBC had allotted three hours for the game to play itself out. The monkey wrench in the wheel was that at 7 p.m. (6 p.m. Central), NBC had scheduled a highly touted, and hugely budgeted, TV movie with an all-star cast, The New Adventures of Heidi. Part of the agreement the network had signed with the sponsor, Timex, guaranteed that under no circumstances would the beginning of the movie be delayed, or joined in progress. At 7 p.m., Heidi was taking to the air no matter what.

Ten years after the fact, writer Don Kowet managed to round up NBC's principal players from that historic day, and crafted a wonderfully detailed article about just what transpired within the space of 20 minutes that afternoon. The excerpt that follows is lengthy, but just try to put yourself in the place of these network execs who were faced with an AFL game that was not yet over, and the specter of Heidi staring them in the ashen faces. We pick up Kowet's report at 6:40 p.m:

Scotty Connal, the NBC Sports manager on duty that day, was sitting in his home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, watching the Jets-Raiders game and frowning. "It was becoming a terribly slow fourth quarter," Connal recalls. "I was a little nervous." Scotty picked up one of the two telephones in his den. He dialed Carl Lindemann in nearby Greenwich. He spoke to Lindemann's wife; Carl was on the other phone, she said, already conferring with NBC Inc. president Julian Goodman.

"I was telling Julian about the instruction that had been issued to Broadcast Operations Control -- that Heidi had to go on promptly at 7 p.m., no matter what," Lindemann recalls. "Julian said, 'That's crazy. It's a terrible idea. We'd better get Durgin on the phone.'"

While Lindemann's wife held Scotty Connal on the other telephone, Lindemann roused NBC-TV president Don Durgin, patching him and Julian Goodman into a three-way conference call. It took precious minutes before Goodman persuaded Durgin to delay the start of Heidi until the Raiders-Jets game was completed. "The moment Don agreed," Lindemann adds, "I yelled to my wife, 'Tell Scotty to keep it going.'"

It was 6:55, and the Jets were beating the Raiders 32-29. With Lindemann still holding on one telephone, Scotty Connal used his other phone to dial the main switchboard at NBC in Manhattan. At that moment, however, a horde of other callers -- some rooting for the game, others rooting for Heidi -- had exactly the same idea. First Connal got a busy signal, then only dead air. The overloaded NBC switchboard had blown a fuse.

Connal clicked off. He dialed his direct line to producer Don Ellis in the "truck," the mobile unit on-field at the Oakland Coliseum. He told Ellis to telephone the NBC studio in Burbank -- the only NBC outpost anywhere with a direct line into Broadcast Operations Control in Manhattan. Burbank would relay the message: keep the game going.

At 6:59-plus, a technician in Broadcast Operations Control in Manhattan was deciding what to do about the message from Burbank. Keep the football game going? When this printed instruction, right there on the table, stated categorically that under NO CONDITIONS should Heidi be delayed? The technician picked up a telephone and dialed Scotty Connal. Scotty still had Don Ellis on one line and Carl Lindemann on the other. The technician waited for one more busy signal, then hung up. He selected a button on a control panel. He pushed it.

Julian Goodman, in Larchmont, N.Y., saw ... first a six-second spot for Monday Night at the Movies, then a 60-second commercial, a 10-second promo for local stations, a five-second dance performed by the NBC peacock...

"'Where in hell has our football game gone?' Julian starts roaring in my ear," says Carl Lindemann. "Soon I am grabbing the other phone out of my wife's hand and roaring at Scotty, 'Where in hell has our football game gone!'" The only response Lindemann heard was a deep, mournful moan. "Don Ellis, in the truck, says Oakland has scored a touchdown," groaned Connal.

"While I am still trying to explain to Goodman and Durgin about that touchdown," says Lindemann, "I hear Scotty shouting in my other ear, 'My God, Ellis says Oakland has scored ANOTHER TOUCHDOWN."

And so, Oakland won the game but loyal TV viewers would never see it. The permanent effect on televised sports is that NBC immediately instituted a policy that never again would a game be interrupted while the outcome was still in doubt. Kowet concluded, "NBC also installed a direct line into and out of Broadcast Operations Control, accessible to any New York executive. To this day, insiders call that telephone 'the Heidi phone.'"

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Now, why would the situation have been so odd in Birmingham, except of course that everything was occurring an hour earlier in the Central Time Zone? Well, folks, those of you who are old enough to remember those days will realize that in 1968, WAPI (Channel 13) and WBMG (Channel 42) were still sharing NBC and CBS programming. Basically, 13 got first pick from both networks' schedules and 42 showed what was left. Below you will see the day's TV log as it appeared in the newspaper that fateful November 17. Examine it closely.

You will notice that, for whatever reason, 13 had chosen NOT to carry the Jets-Raiders game. That clash began on 42 at 3 p.m., while 13 ran what seems to be some sort of filmed program, Flight of Apollo. 42 had allotted two hours for the football game, unlike NBC's allotted three hours. At 5 p.m., 42 planned to begin carrying the Hawaiian Open golf tournament, which would last until 6:30 when the Ivan Tors animal-based show Gentle Ben would lumber across the screen.

While all of this was going on, 13 had more important things than pro football, golf and a pet bear to present. At 3:45 (the Apollo film must have been 45 minutes) would come Pigskin Parade, followed at 4:00 by The Bear Bryant Show and at 5:00 by the Auburn Football Review. That left things clear for Heidi to take the field at 6 p.m., just as NBC had promised.

Try to imagine that you are an engineer working in WBMG's control room late on a Sunday afternoon when no station executives are anywhere in the building; even Sergeant Jack is off duty and his jailhouse set is dark and silent. The NBC telecast of the football game has already run an hour past the time 42 had planned, and has now cut two-thirds of the way into the scheduled golf tournament. Obviously that nail-biting WBMG engineer had to be waiting for the end of the game, since WAPI had the right to show Heidi, and the button to cut off the NBC feed would have to be pushed immediately after the game ended.

So, what do you suppose happened in the 42 control room when suddenly the game disappeared and those network promo spots took its place? What went on the air at 6 p.m. to fill the half hour until Gentle Ben? Did 42 join the golf tournament for its final 30 minutes? Did the engineer punch up a half hour of Mister Magoo and Dick Tracy cartoons that happened to be on the film chain? And over at Channel 13, was someone sharp enough to catch the fact that the game had been cut off and Heidi was about to begin on time?

Unfortunately, we may never know the answers to any of these questions. We do not know of any living engineers from either station who would have been on duty on that particular evening, so we can only speculate as to the screaming and hair-pulling that may have occurred. One thing is for sure, though... whereas every other TV market would have been worried about Heidi interrupting the end of a game, Birmingham was one of the very few in which the game and the movie were being shown on two different stations, and the "surprise ending" of the Jets vs. the Raiders provided a surprise for more than just the viewers.

--Text by Tim Hollis

10/25/2008 -- 903 PM EDT