Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Cultural Archaeologist

By Mitchell

We should have seen it coming.

In the February 17, 1968 issue of TV Guide, buried in the yellow "TV Teletype" section at the back of the magazine, was the following brief notation:

NBC's "Heidi" special, which was filmed in Europe, will be shown in the two-hour form instead of the originally planned 90 minutes.

There were more tantalizing clues - the color photo spread of the Heidi cast shooting in the Swiss Alps in the November 9 issue (ironically, an issue including an article entitled, "Inside Story of a Football Telecast"), although it probably didn't attract much notice at the time. And then in the November 16 issue there's the show itself: Heidi, on Sunday, November 17, 1968 at 6:00 Central on NBC, starring Michael Redgrave, Maximillian Schell and Jean Simmons in "Johanna Spyri's story classic." Almost unnoticed – printed with virtually no fanfare – was the game itself.

3:00 Pro Football. New York Jets vs. Raiders at Oakland. Curt Gowdy and Al DeRogatis report. (Live)

The rest of the Heidi Game, as it came to be known, is history. And so was television sports as we knew it.

The Heidi Game, by itself, didn’t spell the end. Mike Celizic’s wonderful book The Biggest Game of Them All illustrates how the 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State #1 vs. #2 showdown profoundly changed the way in which television looked at sports. This game, created a demand for media credentials unsurpassed in sports to that time (it took the Super Bowl years before it became as big a media sensation), caused Catholic churches throughout the nation to change confession times so as not to conflict with the game, and became the first sporting event telecast live via satellite in Hawaii.

It may be hard to believe now, but through the 60s and early 70s the televising of college football was a closely regulated business. Teams were limited to the number of appearances they could make on TV each season, and even the biggest games were frequently seen on a regional, rather than national, basis. The Notre Dame-Michigan State game, which was hyped to a level that would be remarkable even today, threatened to change everything.

It was seen as a single-handed threat to small or underperforming college teams. (Why would anyone go to watch such a team when they could stay at home and watch the big boys duke it out?) It created fears that Notre Dame might run off and get their own TV network. (As indeed they did, although it took almost 30 years for it to happen.) By bowing to the demands of the viewing audience and showing the top teams week after week (regardless of how many times they appeared), major schools were certain to gain a recruiting advantage in what was rapidly becoming a national, rather than regional, playing field.

In the end, the two teams settled nothing, playing to a 10-10 tie. But as far as television was concerned, the game had taken it to the brink. It would take perhaps one more event to push it over the edge.

Enter Heidi.

The uproar over the game was immense, not only in the immediate aftermath but in the days to follow. It was a featured story on NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley report. It made the front page of the New York Times. For the American Football League, still fighting for respectability and acceptance, it was a public relations bonanza – seldom before had the league gotten the kind of attention it now basked in. (And things would get even better less than two months later, with Joe Namath leading the aforementioned Jets to their shocking Super Bowl victory over the Colts.)

The message to TV from the public came through loud and clear – don’t mess with our sports.

The results were mixed. TV did indeed learn the power and popularity (not to mention profitability) of sports, with the result that they started messing with it more than ever – games starting at the break of dawn or the middle of the night, summer sports in the winter and winter sports in the summer, endless commercial breaks, stadiums constructed around TV sightlines – even leagues created in partnership with networks (the XFL) or partially owned by networks (Arena Football). Entire networks were devoted entirely to the telecasting of sporting events. Leagues started their own television networks. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to suggest that sports became, to a great extent, a wholly owned subsidiary of Corporate America (see Rollerball for further details).

Oh, there was never a repeat of the Heidi Game – at least not exactly. For while an NFL game would never again be cut off before its completion (unless your home team was playing in the second half of a doubleheader, but that’s another story), other sports aren't necessarily as fortunate, as the NHL found out last Saturday afternoon. The NHL learned this lesson the hard way, when the fifth game of the Ottawa-Buffalo series was unceremoniously dumped by NBC (yes, the same network of Heidi) to make way for the Preakness pre-race show. The game was headed for overtime, you see, and as any fan of the NHL can tell you, a playoff overtime game can last five minutes or five hours. For those die-hard fans who wanted to see just how this game wound up, they had to hightail it over to Versus, the NHL’s cable home. If they had access to Versus, that is. Moral of the story: money talks. The NFL has it. The NHL doesn’t. (The NHL hasn't been the only victim of this kind of programming, as this Wikipedia entry shows.)

Now, it may be a stretch to accuse one little girl of causing all this, but then again it might not be such a stretch after all. What is safe to say is that the Heidi Game changed the way television perceived sports, and in some fundamental way sports has never been the same.

And nobody could possibly have guessed it at the time, reading the pages of TV Guide.

1 comment:

  1. You know, AFL football is another thing that happened in the 60s, along with Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll, Vatican II, the Birth Control Pill and Humanae Vitae, the assassination of JFK and RFK and MLK, the Vietnam War, the Hippie and Civil Rights movements and goodness knows what else.

    And I missed most of it, by either being in college, or the Army.


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