TV executive turns back the clock on 'Heidi' game

Media Watch

November 12, 1998|By Milton Kent

Nowadays, it's de rigueur as an NFL game approaches 7 p.m. for the announcer to warn the audience that "60 Minutes" or whatever "animals devour their young" show on Fox will air in its entirety after the contest is over, with the clear implication that the game will be broadcast to its conclusion.

But that wasn't always the case. Tuesday, for example, will mark the 30th anniversary of one of the most celebrated cases of a network pulling the plug on the action before the action was over.

Dick Cline, the man who made the call to interrupt the game telecast in favor of the movie "Heidi," awoke the next day to find himself on the front page of the New York Times for his perceived blunder and described as "the faceless button pusher in the bowels of NBC" by David Brinkley.

"I took exception to that because I wasn't a button pusher," said Cline with a laugh the other day on a conference call.

On Nov. 17, 1968, the New York Jets led the Oakland Raiders by three points with less than a minute to go on the game clock, with the real clock about to strike 7 p.m. Eastern time.

Few, if any, football games to that point had ever run past their allotted three-hour running time, and NBC, the network carrying the AFL then, was preparing to air the children's movie "Heidi."

Cline, an NBC broadcast operations supervisor then, had been briefed during the week leading to the broadcast that Timex had purchased the block of time for the movie and that "Heidi" would start precisely at 7 p.m., no matter what.

But as the witching hour approached, Cline said a sports executive went to check on the possibility of keeping the game on past 7 but never reported back.

"Everybody started calling in wondering whether 'Heidi' was going to be on at 7 o'clock. As we got closer to 7, people were wondering if we were going to stay with the football game," said Cline. "The switchboard just blew up, so no one could call in to me, and I couldn't call out to anyone."

So the network left the game, and viewers around the country were left to believe that the Jets had won. Lo and behold, the Raiders scored two touchdowns in a nine-second span, escaping with a 43-32 win.

"As far as I'm concerned, if Oakland hadn't scored two touchdowns and won the game, I don't know that we would be on this conference call because it wouldn't have been that big a deal," said Cline. "I might have gotten a technical oops or something for pulling away from the game, but it would have been forgotten about."

In later broadcast contracts, the NFL inserted language that guaranteed that the home audience of the two teams involved would see the game in its entirety.

While Cline said "half the people thought I was going to be fired," he was instead promoted the next month and became a director. He'll be working the Cincinnati-Minnesota game this weekend, and no doubt he'll be staying in the truck until the game is over.

Unless, of course, a little Swiss girl has other ideas.

Coming home

In the end, Keith Olbermann says that it wasn't so much a steady diet of reporting on Monica Lewinsky and the like that drove him out of news, but a recognition that he never should have left sports in the first place.

"God forgive me, I missed doing [Phillies announcer] Harry Kalas impressions and saying, 'Putting the biscuit in the basket.' That whole part of my personality had gone into sleep mode," said Olbermann.

Olbermann, who will join Fox Sports News as its principal anchor next month, said in a conference call this week that he came down with a case of buyer's remorse within months after leaving ESPN for MSNBC.

"I had to understand the ramifications of getting what you want as opposed to what you really want," said Olbermann. "I thought my problem was with sports. In fact, my problem was the grind of what I was doing and the people I worked with. I screwed up. I made a mistake."

Olbermann was alternately contrite, funny and introspective during the call, in which he revealed that he had sought treatment from a therapist to help him deal with unresolved feelings of anger.

Most of those feelings stemmed from his five years at ESPN, which he left in 1997. Not long after his departure, Olbermann lashed out at his former employers for their treatment of him and his colleagues.

Olbermann said he still believes his former colleagues were mistreated, but he apologized for letting his feelings surface publicly.

Olbermann says he expects to remain friends with his former "SportsCenter" tag-team partner Dan Patrick but will also do battle with Patrick at 11 p.m. nightly.

"It's going to be strange for me, and it was strange for him the first time he did the show without me," said Olbermann. "I noticed that 'SportsCenter' did not go off the air when I left, and I suspect that I'll be able to have a career apart from 'SportsCenter.' "

Fox is expected to announce this week that another of Olbermann's former ESPN colleagues, Chris Myers, will join its cable news operation.

Week's ratings

The ratings for the 10 most-watched sporting events on broadcast television in Baltimore during the past week (R-Rating; S-Share):

Event ........... Day ... Ch. R/S

Ravens-Oak. ..... Sun. .. 13 15.3/34

Rav. post-game .. Sun. .. 13 12.3/23

Steelers-Pack ... Mon. ... 2 9.8/16

"Mon. Blast" .... Mon. ... 2 7.3/11

'Skins-Cards .... Sun. .. 45 6.9/11

Fig. skating .... Sun. ... 2 5.6/10

"NFL Today" ..... Sun. .. 13 4.4/11

Va.-Fla. St. .... Sat. ... 2 3.6/8

"Rav. Report" ... Sat. .. 13 3.5/7

Breeders' Cup ... Sat. .. 11 3.3/8

Pub Date: 11/12/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.