In honor of tonight’s Superbowl game, I am reposting an article from November 2014 about the “Heidi game” and a more recent television scandal.
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Do you remember the Heidi Game?
On November 17, 1968, the Oakland Raiders defeated the New York Jets 43-32, scoring two touchdowns in nine seconds to overcome a 32-29 New York lead. Fans didn’t see the dramatic finish, though, because with just 65 seconds left to pay and with the Jets in the lead, NBC made a last-minute decision to cut from the game to begin airing a much touted 1968 made-for-TV version of Heidi.
NBC executives were caught between a rock and a hard place: The game between American Football League rivals was running long, and calls were coming in from parents who were concerned the film would be starting too late for small children. It sure looked as though it was a done deal–and the studio engineers made a decision to cut from the game at the commercial, preempting the final moments of the game in the eastern states, and to begin the highly-promoted Heidi at its scheduled time.
The story is the stuff of sports legend: With a little more than a minute left to play, the Jets kicked a 26-yard field goal that gave them the lead. After the New York kick-off, the Raiders returned the ball to their own 23-yard line. And then, the clincher: Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica threw a 20-yard pass to halfback Charlie Smith; a facemask penalty moved the ball to the Jets’ 43; and on the next play, Lamonica passed again to Smith, who ran it all the way for a touchdown. Then the Jets fumbled the kickoff, and Oakland’s Preston Ridlehuber grabbed the ball and ran it two yards for another touchdown. The game was over, and the victory was Oakland’s.
Part of the irony of the broadcast was that NBC executives had, in fact, made a last-minute decision to reverse course and permit the game to air in its entirety. However, with throngs of people calling the network–parents, asking when Heidi would begin, and sports fans, demanding that the game be shown–the execs were unable to reach NBC programmer Dick Cline in the studio. Cline, following an earlier protocol set down in pre-game meetings, switched to Heidi. Already irate football fans grew even more irate when they learned about the upset 20 minutes after the game had ended, when the final score was flashed across the bottom of the screen. The NBC phone switchboard, under the weight of thousands of complaint calls, crashed; and fans who could not reach the network called the telephone company, the NY Times, and the NYPD, clogging the police phones for the entire night.
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I was thinking about this seminal moment in broadcast history this week,after I heard about ABC’s faux pas in airing a highly suggestive commercial immediately after its broadcast last Thursday of the Halloween classic It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
Just as Sally stormed off the screen, ABC transitioned into a steamy scene from the sleazy action adventure Scandal. According to the Washington Post,
Sure enough, “Great Pumpkin” ended at about 8:59 p.m. with Sally angrily storming off screen. Seconds later, we see Olivia Pope having a very graphic dream, reminiscing about sleeping with President Fitz (along with the other guy in her love triangle, Jake). It’s all set to “Summer Breeze,” and there are glimpses of lots of bare skin.
Small eyes would likely have been attracted by the beautiful woman swimming laps in a pool–but then, without warning and only 26 seconds from the cutaway from Great Pumpkin, begins the sex. Hot, heavy breathing, bare-skinned sex.
The Parents Television Council issued a formal complaint. In a November 3 press release, PTC president Tim Winter issued a scathing indictment of the network:
“Shame on ABC for putting a peep show next to a playground. In less than 26 seconds we were taken from the Peanuts pumpkin patch to a steamy Scandal sex scene. Twenty-six seconds, boom. Unless parents had the remote control in their hand, thumb on the button and aimed directly at the TV screen, they didn’t have a chance. Such a transition is grossly irresponsible by the network and entirely unfair for parents. ABC owes families an apology.
“Network programmers know the importance of audience flow when constructing their broadcast schedule, and in fact they build their schedules around audience retention rates. So they know full well the importance of program adjacency. The juxtaposition of a reliably classic family-friendly children’s cartoon special like the Great Pumpkin –a huge family draw every year for decades – with such a graphic bedroom scene is unjustifiable. We call on ABC to apologize for its actions and to promise not to do such a thing in the future.”
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The two incidents of children’s programming being slotted next to another type of programming differ, in that the first–while intensely irritating to the sports fans who wanted to see what was one of the most exciting regular season games in AFL history–did not expose young children to obscenity. The second– Well, there must have been a lot of parents doing a lot of explaining that night!
The Federal Communications Commission in 1975 established what was called the “Family Viewing Hour.” From 8:00 to 9:00 p.m., the networks pledged to offer only family-friendly programming. The National Association of Broadcasters matched that in the earlier time slot, offering only clean content in the local hour from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. Parents could safely permit their children to watch TV in the next room, knowing that between 7:00 and 9:00 p.m., nothing would pop on the screen which would constitute an assault on traditional family values.
The Family Viewing Hour disappeared in 1977, after a court challenge by All in the Family producer Norman Lear, who charged that the restriction violated his freedom of expression.
We still need it, though. Some have called for the FTC to fine ABC for its juxtaposition of sex with children’s programming. A fine, though, is a band-aid for this single situation; but without a vision for America which includes protections for innocent minds and engages all adults in protecting our children, this is an incident which is certain to be repeated.
Oh– For those who are interested, here is the closing scene from The Great Pumpkin followed by the opening of Scandal. Warning: Content is not suitable for children.
Image: Heidi by Jessie Willcox Smith