Years after “Heidi” game, CBS decision draws parallels

By Kevin Wilson

Today we celebrate an anniversary of sorts. It’s an anniversary I didn’t live through, but am affected by just the same.
While reading Gregg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback column online, I was reminded of something that changed television and sports as we know it.
The day was Nov. 17. The year, 1968 — 10 years before I was alive. The network was NBC, and it was showing a Raiders-Jets game. The Jets had just scored a field goal to lead 32-29 with 1:05 to play.
But alas, it was 7 p.m. — prime time! NBC had planned a movie called, “Heidi,” and football finales seemed like a second priority to NBC. So the networks switched to a scene of child actor Jennifer Edwards, and football fans across the nation called to disagree with the decision.
What made the decision look even weaker was that the Raiders scored two touchdowns in the final 1:05, creating inarguably the greatest 43-29 victory in a game pre-empted by a family movie.
That’s the game that changed things. When I was born many years later, I was born into a world that understood that nothing is more important than football.
Until Wednesday night, that is.
It seems now that the CSI television program has overtaken football as the latest controversy. The Palestinian president died shortly before the top of the hour on prime time, and a producer at CBS decided to give the network’s viewers the news as soon as possible — even if it meant that the final minutes of CSI would be pre-empted.
The backlash was not unlike the one for the Heidi game 36 years before. Calls and e-mails flooded CBS, and the producer responsible was fired this week.
It almost makes you believe we’ve been sucked into a world where nothing is more important than fiction. By firing the producer, CBS seems to be saying that five minutes of a fictional story (CSI) is more important than a world-changing event in reality (Arafat’s death).
Granted, the situations are different in many respects. Viewers can now switch to several 24-hour news channels, or view news online. Also, news of Arafat’s death was largely expected, and some might not have minded waiting until the top of the hour to know about it. Or they might have preferred the news scroll along the bottom so the episode could run in its entirety.
I understand that CBS was doing what it felt was right to respond to viewer (customer) criticism. I also think that producer will get a job somewhere, by upholding a standard that on some corners of the planet, current events are still important.
I just wonder about the future of the country, when we seem to place more value on fiction than reality.
Also, I wonder if 36 years from now, “The Arafat episode of CSI” will have the same ring to it as “The Heidi Game.” Only time will tell.

Kevin Wilson is the managing editor of the Portales News-Tribune. He can be reached at 356-4481, ext. 33 or by e-mail:
Kevin_Wilson@link.freedom.com