Today marks the anniversary of the “Heidi Game,” an infamous moment in television history but also part of the story of how far professional football has come in its bid to conquer the zeitgeist. November 17, 1968: the Oakland Raiders score two touchdowns in the final minute to defeat the New York Jets. Alas, most Jets fans and many other viewers missed the amazing comeback. Before the game, NBC execs had allocated three hours to the telecast, in those days more than enough to fit in the average pro football tilt. High scoring, injuries, and penalties contrived to carry the game past the deadline, however. As 7 p.m. (Eastern) approached, network decision-makers called an audible: that night’s broadcast of Heidi, the heavily-promoted story of an orphaned girl in the Alps, had to go on. It did. Anyone watching the Jets-Raiders had no idea how the game ended. Outraged fans flooded NBC with calls, scandal ensued, and the National Football League made sure to add a clause to TV contracts stating its client networks had to show the end of the game, Heidi or no Heidi. Two years later, a new development cemented the NFL-television alliance. Forever after, football’s clout allowed it to preempt any broadcast short of the apocalypse, and maybe even that (only time will tell).
As much as anything, Monday Night Football built that clout into an unstoppable force. The weekly broadcast—gravid with whiz-bang camera tricks, gladiatorial pageantry, and on-air bickering—turned the NFL product into pure entertainment. As Richard C. Crepeau shows in his book NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime, the early success of the show relied on a pairing as unlikely as any in pop culture history:
The three men in the booth were Keith Jackson for play-by-play, Don Meredith for ex-player analysis, and Howard Cosell for analysis and opinions. The interplay between Cosell and Meredith developed quickly and became the centerpiece of Tuesday morning discussions of the games. MNF was an immediate hit. It achieved a thirty-five share on opening night and a consistent Nielsen rating of eighteen, which translated to sixty million viewers. The average share in the first year was thirty-one. MNF occasionally reached into the top ten of prime time.
Cosell had an ability to irritate almost everyone, and fans of each teams in a game felt he favored the other team. By the end of the first season Cosell and Meredith had developed a “shtick” in which Dandy Don played the role of the “good ole boy” and Howard that of the “big-mouthed New York Jew.” In counterpoint, these two were perfect for those bored with football by the time Monday night rolled around. Roone Arledge, MNF’s creator, understood that fans were looking for entertainment, not just another game. Under his direction MNF offered melodrama and entertainment, with a little football on the side.
The Meredith-Cosell dance became an extremely popular part of the entertainment and brought Cosell a deluge of hate mail. At one point a Denver bar held a weekly raffle in which the winner was given a brick to throw at a television when Cosell’s image came on screen. Cosell had a very high Q-rating as a highly recognizable public figure, with extremely high approval and disapproval ratings.
Part of MNF’s appeal was its unpredictability. Late in a 1972 game in the Astrodome, with the home team getting hammered and the majority of attendees already in their cars heading home, the camera panned the crowd, settling in on what appeared to be a sleeping, scruffy-looking character. His eyes opened, and he shot his middle finger directly into the camera. Without missing a beat, Meredith said simply, “Number one in the nation, and number one in our heart.”