Sunday, November 17, 2013

It Ain't Over Until It's Over

Yogi Berra was credited with saying "It ain't over until it's over."

Yogi played — and then managed — in major league baseball, but the saying is appropriate for football, too.

It certainly was appropriate 45 years ago today.

On this day in 1968, the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders were playing a football game. Joe Namath and the Jets went on to play in — and win — the Super Bowl in January. And, late in the game that was played 45 years ago today, it sure looked like the Jets were going to beat the Raiders.

Except that they didn't.

It had been a back–and–forth affair in Oakland that day, but, with 1:05 remaining, the Jets took a three–point lead. Worried NBC executives cut away from the game, and the network began its regularly scheduled broadcast of a made–for–TV movie that was based on the children's book "Heidi."

What happened next changed the relationship between professional football and television.

The Raiders scored not one but two improbable touchdowns and won the game, 43–32. The western half of the United States saw the full game; the eastern half was watching a little girl on a Swiss mountain and had no idea the Raiders had won.

"Television missed one of football's most exciting and exhausting minutes of emotion," wrote Bob Valli in the Oakland Tribune. "In that minute, Oakland fans saw despair turn to delirium."

Football fans were enraged when they learned what they missed. Viewers who tuned in for the movie were enraged when NBC ran the score on the screen in the middle of one of the movie's most dramatic moments. "Short of pre–empting Heidi for a skin flick," wrote sportswriter Jack Clary, "NBC could not have managed to alienate more viewers that evening."

As a result, television changed its football broadcast policy.

Future contracts would include explicit language pledging that all games would be shown to their completion. If a game ran long, regularly scheduled programming would be delayed.

NBC implemented that policy immediately. It is standard procedure with all commercial networks today.

To its credit, NBC poked fun at itself over the incident. Three weeks later, when the network was scheduled to show "Pinocchio" on a Sunday night, NBC's promotional advertising showed Pinocchio assuring football fans that he would rather cut off his nose than "have them cut off" the game before it was over.

And a week after that, when a game ran late, NBC announced that the regularly scheduled program, an episode of The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, would be delayed.

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