Big Scream TV
Today is the 30th Anniversary of 'The Heidi Game', a Landmark Moment in Television Sports History
TIMES STAFF WRITER
17 November 1998
Los Angeles Times
She was only 10 years old, a cute little first-time actress starring in a made-for-television adaptation of a classic children's story about an orphan living with her grandfather in the Swiss Alps.
But when Jennifer Edwards appeared on television screens 30 years ago tonight, she was unwittingly transformed into an object of scorn by many football fans.
As the title character in "Heidi," she was caught in the cross-fire between a bumbling TV network and infuriated fans and became forever linked with the most infamous gaffe in TV sports history.
"Like it was my fault," she says today, a 40-year-old mother of two (and grandmother of one) looking back with amusement and amazement at the riotous episode that remains to this day the quintessential TV sports blunder.
"Heidi" secured its place in history when NBC, the network that developed the Johanna Spyri-penned tale into a two-hour movie, put it on as scheduled at 7 p.m. in the East, inciting a thunderous backlash by cutting away without warning from the deciding final 50 seconds of a frantic 43-32 comeback victory by the Oakland Raiders over the New York Jets.
"The Heidi Game," as it came to be known, was a watershed moment in TV sports because it signaled to all the networks the new elevated status of sports on television. And the game's stature only continues to grow; last year, "the Heidi Game" was voted the most memorable regular-season contest in NFL history--never mind that it was an AFL game.
The venomous reaction to the network's switch to "Heidi" was so instantaneous that NBC's switchboard couldn't handle the calls. According to legend, its fuse was replaced 26 times.
As syndicated columnist Art Buchwald later wrote, "Men who wouldn't get out of their chairs during an earthquake rushed to the phones to scream obscenities."
NBC President Julian Goodman issued a public apology.
The New York Times ran a front-page story.
A network edict was born: Never preempt an exciting game by switching to regularly scheduled programming.
CBS News poked fun at the situation by jokingly "revealing" the last minute of "Heidi": She married the goat keeper and lived happily ever after.
Sports columnists across America weighed in, many vilifying the young orphan.
A less vocal minority, however, defended NBC's decision.
Living in England at the time, Edwards was unaware of the situation until she read all about it after a Hollywood publicist sent her the press clippings and letters.
"The uproar was so tremendous that I remember getting huge stuffed Manila envelopes of fan mail and hate mail at the same time," says Edwards, the daughter of producer-director Blake Edwards and stepdaughter of singer-actress Julie Andrews. "It was quite extraordinary. . . .
"But it was bizarre in the sense that you were either loved or hated. I remember clippings from newspapers calling me things like, 'The little brat in white stockings.' Like I had something to do with it. And I couldn't quite fathom that. I couldn't quite understand why I was being personally attacked."
Who was at fault?
Nobody ever took the blame.
Dick Cline, whose job as NBC's broadcast operations control supervisor was to make sure the network got the right show on the air at the right time, says he was only following orders that had been handed down to him days earlier in a meeting of NBC department heads:
Leave the game and go to "Heidi" at 7 p.m.
It seemed logical. Timex had bought the advertising time for "Heidi," and the movie was touted by the New York Times as the best program on TV that day.
"I didn't do anything wrong," says Cline, who still works NFL games as a director on CBS telecasts. "I'm not guilty. I did what I was supposed to do. Joe Namath & Co. didn't get the game over in time, so I went to 'Heidi.' "
Unbeknown to Cline, Goodman, NBC's president, had given the order a few minutes before 7 to stay with the game, but the message never got through to Cline in New York.
That's because all phone lines within a six-block radius of NBC headquarters had gone dead when a telephone exchange had gone out. It was later theorized that the circuits were overloaded by scores of fans calling the network to demand that the game stay on past the top of the hour, and scores of mothers insisting that "Heidi" come on as scheduled.
The game had been a classic AFL shootout, with the Jets' Namath and the Raiders' Daryle Lamonica throwing 71 passes for 692 yards.
There were six lead changes and ties through the first 59 minutes, the Jets taking a 32-29 lead on Jim Turner's fourth field goal, a 26-yarder, with 65 seconds to play.
The Raiders returned the kickoff to their 22-yard line.
Lamonica connected with halfback Charlie Smith on a 20-yard pass play, and a facemask penalty put the ball on the Jet 43-yard line.
Cut to commercial, followed by station identification.
And then . . . "Heidi."
All of NBC's affiliates east of Denver cut to the film.
While the Raiders mounted their comeback in the Oakland Coliseum, fans who had been watching the game saw a little girl in pigtails making her way to her grandfather's house.
When the phone lines came back up, calls flooded the NBC switchboard. Some who couldn't get through called the New York Police Department, tying up what was described as "the most elaborate emergency call system in the world" for several hours. Others called the New York Telephone Co. and the New York Times.
Back in Oakland, Lamonica hooked up again with Smith, this time on a 43-yard touchdown pass that put the Raiders ahead, 36-32, with 42 seconds to play.
Namath had time to rally the Jets but never got the chance.
Teammate Earl Christy fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Raiders' Preston Ridlehuber recovered the ball at the two-yard line and dived into the end zone.
The Raiders had scored twice in nine seconds and pulled out a heart-stopping victory.
About 80 minutes after the game, NBC tried to ease the situation by running crawlers across the bottom of the screen giving the final result.
But it blew that too.
One was flashed as Heidi's paralytic cousin, Klara, summoned the courage to try to walk.
"When it comes to doing the wrong thing at the wrong time," wrote the New York Times, "NBC should receive a headless Emmy for last night's fiasco."
Even those viewers lucky enough to see the end of the game were short-changed--NBC came back from a commercial after Smith's 43-yard touchdown.
Many viewers didn't learn the score until long afterward.
About an hour after the game, Jet Coach Weeb Ewbank phoned his wife in New York.
"Congratulations," she said.
"For what?" he asked.
"On winning," she said.
"We lost," he told her.
Ninety minutes after the game, NBC's Goodman issued an apology to football fans: "It was a forgivable error committed by humans who were concerned about the children who were expecting to see 'Heidi.' I missed the end of the game as much as anyone else."
The headline in the New York Daily News the next day summed it up: "Jets 32, Raiders 29, Heidi 14."
The NFL inserted language into its TV contracts guaranteeing that, in the future, games of visiting teams would be shown to their home markets in their entirety.
Cline was stunned.
"I was surprised to see it in the New York Times the next day," he says. "And I was surprised to hear [NBC news anchor] David Brinkley report on it, calling me 'the faceless button-pusher in the bowels of NBC.' I took exception to that. I wasn't a button-pusher."
So why didn't he do the logical thing and stay with the game?
"If I had done what was logical, I would have been fired the next day," he says.
Instead, he adds, he was promoted about a month later.
Namath and the Jets didn't lose again that season, defeating the Raiders, 27-23, in a rematch for the AFL championship at New York before shocking the football world with their 16-7 victory over the NFL champion Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
Edwards, who lives in Brentwood with her husband Mark Schneider and their 5-year-old daughter, Hannah, is dumbfounded that "the Heidi Game" is still remembered.
"What's fascinating to me is that, to this day, even young men in their 30s remember being kids and seeing their fathers throwing things at the TV set," she says. "It's really amazing. . . .
"I remember being at my friend Howie Mandel's house 10 years ago for a pool party and him running out of his guest house and saying, 'You're on TV. You're a great moment in sports.' "
Many years ago, the actress says, the producers of "The Love Boat" television series talked about putting together an episode starring Edwards and Namath and spoofing the "Heidi Game."
Edwards has continued to work as an actress, appearing in about 15 feature films and numerous television shows. She recently completed filming on an episode of "The Nanny" and a TV movie starring Burt Reynolds.
Her biggest role?
"Probably 'Heidi,' " she says. "In the sense that it's the one thing that people seem to associate with me and because of its impact."
She says she is still asked about it frequently.
"In fact," she says, "fairly recently somebody mentioned it and a fairly young up-and-coming actor said, 'Oh, my God. That was you?' And I was surprised that he knew about it because he was probably only about 30. He said he remembered his father and his grandfather talking about it."
Edwards, though, still doesn't understand how anybody could get so worked up over a game.
"That's the thing that kind of blows my mind," she says. "I live with a devout Laker fan and I know for a fact that if anything like that happened during a Laker game, our television sets would be hurled from the nearest window--and not being involved in sports myself, that's an unusual emotion for me to understand.
"But, then again, if you did it to 'ER,' I would probably have the same reaction."