Commentary

The 11 biggest telecasts in NFL history, those that demonstrated the enormous power of the league

From the gripping 1958 NFL title game, to Heidi, to SB III, the launch of MNF, ESPN's first game and the creation of Fox, the NFL has become a behemoth through TV

 

From a fidgety black and white set in its early years to brilliant color over the decades, television’s steady technological breakthroughs are irrepressible. From three networks to the addition of Fox, cable, satellite, paid tiers, streaming and mobile, live video today is a runaway freight train. 

You’ve heard this many times. The NFL is a sport made for television. The action is measured, It’s confined to a rectangular field and it’s played at a predictable rhythm.There’s no overabundance of games and the field is filled with star studded players.

There’s time to digest and savor the results of one weekend and still leave days ahead to anticipate the next Sunday. The NFL is a constant subject of conversation from Labor Day through mid-winter. Now, with the draft, free agency, camps and such, there’s NFL talk year-round.

Historically, the league was a national creation of television. It was in the 1950s that television and the league began to grow in lockstep. Football produced compelling programming and television continued growing its post-war platform. From under 10% penetration across the landscape at the start of the 50s to about 90% in 1960, television intoxicated America.

The NFL and TV have been inextricable for sixty years. Here’s how it’s manifested itself on your sets. Eleven is the most common number in football parlance so here we go in order of importance:

 

1. November 17, 1968 – NBC

Heidi Game / Jets vs. Raiders

If there was any one game that demonstrated undeniably that fans need their regular TV fix of football, it was an old AFL rivalry between the Jets and the Raiders. When NBC preempted the end of a tight 4th quarter to show the made for television kids’ movie Heidi at 7pm straight-up, it was bedlam. Fans and viewers emoted mutinously. The network was flooded with calls of protests from viewers. The preemption made the top of news stories across the country.

In retrospect, the move was a blessing in disguise. NBC, the NFL, sponsors and the television community took note. They began to appreciate the great value of football on network television.

The Heidi Game 50 years later; Those who remember the end won’t forget it, those who don’t, won’t believe it 

2. December, 28, 1958 – NBC

NFL Championship Game –Baltimore Colts vs. New York Giants

This game occurred 61 years ago and is still heaped with elevated praise. Historians dub it, the Greatest game Ever Played. In the league’s first ever overtime, the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants, 23-17 at Yankee Stadium.

Bad weather, a growing penetration of TV homes and a swelling audience attracted American eyeballs.The Greatest game Ever Played might have been the launch point for the NFL’s meteoric rise. In time, the NFL surpassed MLB as the nation’s pastime. 

One critical footnote. This was before TV was technically fail-safe. As the overtime was about to start, NBC lost its transmission line from Yankee Stadium, so the network staged a delay by having an employee run out onto the field. Doing so, bought NBC time to reestablish the connection and the game was resumed.

The ’58 overtime thriller, 60 years ago today, is still ranked as the ‘Greatest game ever played’

3. January 15, 1967 -CBS and NBC

NFL-AFL Championship Game / Packers vs. Chiefs (later referenced as Super Bowl I)

It wasn’t even called the Super Bowl yet. The old American Football League and the National Football League had already agreed to merge and the leagues were managed by the senior league, the NFL.

Because the merged league inherited previously signed contracts, it was determined that CBS which had the NFL and NBC which had the AFL would both run the game. But the networks didn’t necessarily play nicely in the playpen, the area outside the Los Angeles Coliseum where their respective remote trucks were parked side by side. Security had to install a temporary fence between the production areas of the two networks

No one really expected the game to be very competitive, so the subject of conversation during the week was the rivalry between the two networks. When all was said and done, the Packers won handily, 35-10. As for the ratings, CBS did a 22.6 and NBC an 18.5. Over 75 million Americans watched all or parts of the game. The country’s population then was some 199 million. We’ve grown as a great nation by 64% over the last 52 years. Today it’s approximately 329 million. 

How important was television? When NBC missed the start of the second half because it was in a commercial break, officials on the field ordered a re-kick!

4. January 12, 1969  – NBC 

NFL-AFL Championship Game Super Bowl / Jets vs. Colts

And who would have thunk it? No one gave the Jets a chance against the mighty Colts, except one man, Joe Namath, the Jets quarterback who guaranteed a win. NBC, the longtime AFL Network had the game exclusively. Curt Gowdy was the lead voice and many felt that deep down he was tendentiously rooting for the Jets.

With the Jets dominating late, an amazed but contained Gowdy said, “You may be watching one of the greatest games in sports history,” adding with a tone of astonishment, “Namath is picking apart the Baltimore secondary.”

The Jets win demonstrated that the two leagues which were to be the merged on the field a year later, would be more competitive than first thought.

Fifty years later, Super Bowl III, most super of ’em all. Namath’s guarantee. An amazing Curt Gowdy on NBC

5. September 21, 1970 – ABC

First Monday Night Football Game, Jets vs. Browns

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and ABC Sports head, Roone Arledge, two savvy and creative deal-makers agreed to a primetime play-by-play package in a day before cable, satellite and streaming. And for that matter, it was many years before the birth of Fox. In 1970, ABC, CBS and NBC dominated night time programming. Some 90% of television viewers were tuned into the monolithic networks.

For the NFL, primetime was more than just breaking a barrier. The deal confirmed that football was becoming the country’s pastime. Arledge assigned bombastic Howard Cosell and freestyling Don Meredith to the telecasts. This too was a breakthrough; it gave NFL telecasts an entertainment edge. Monday Night Football became appointment viewing.

6. December 8, 1980 – ABC

Monday Night Football Game, Dolphins vs. Patriots

Killing of Beatle – John Lennon

The intersection of news and an NFL telecast. The murder of the mega-star turned into one of those, ‘Where were you when’ events. It was late in a tied game when word surfaced that Lennon had been killed on the West Side of Manhattan. By then, Roone Arledge was overseeing both ABC News and Sports. He asked either Cosell or Frank Gifford to share the tragic development with the NFL audience. At first Cosell uncharacteristically resisted, suggesting that Gifford make the announcement. But Gifford insisted that Cosell, a master at extemporizing, do so. Few who saw it will forget Cosell’s words, “The most famous, perhaps, of all of the Beatles—shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival!”

7. January 27, 1991 – ABC

Super Bowl XXV / Solidarity – Gulf War

Giants vs. Bills

Yes, this one went the Giants way, 20-19, and yes, Scott Norwood could have won if for favored Buffalo but missed a 47 yard field goal attempt as regulation wound down.

But the Gulf War had begun ten days earlier. Rumors persisted that the conference championships would be delayed and perhaps the Super Bowl too. But the game took place as scheduled.

A memorable and awe-inspiring national anthem was performed by singer Whitney Houston. It galvanized the 73,000 plus in Tampa and the millions watching at home. The anthem was later released as a video and as a single. But news came first at halftime. Instead of sticking with festivities at the stadium, Peter Jennings of ABC News had a special report on the Gulf War. Houston’s star-spangled banner rendition was critically acclaimed as one of the best ever. You might say that television and the NFL inspired America on the calendar’s biggest day in sports, Super Bowl Sunday.

8. November 8, 1987 – ESPN

Embracing of cable 

ESPN was born on a shoestring in 1979. It was hardly flushed with cash. In its beginnings, ESPN resorted to studio programming and ancillary play-by-play. In 1984, ABC purchased a controlling interest in the all sports network. ESPN’s programming head Steve Bornstein with the help of his bosses, Roger Werner and Bill Grimes led the effort to nail down a Sunday night package. With the backing of ABC (by then owned by Cap Cities) and perhaps some guidance from ABC Sports, the NFL landed in the ESPN stable.

The network also dug deep into the NFL draft, leading Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to credit ESPN for raising the profile of the league, by turning “a potential six or seven-hour television experience into a twelve-hour television experience.”  

So for the league, 1987 was the year it first embraced a burgeoning world, cable television.

9. August 12, 1994 – Fox

Fox arrives on the scene – The making of a network

Broncos vs. 49ers

The unimaginable became reality. The upstarts at Fox upended CBS’ reign as the only exclusive rightsholder to that point of the NFC package. CBS had run the preponderance of the NFL through the 1950s and the relationship was rock solid. In 1994, Rupert Murdoch and the Fox group threw everything at the league and won the rights. It was a numbing development. It eventually established Fox as the fourth bona fide American network.

Fox’ David Hill brought over Pat Summerall and John Madden as its lead team and 24 years later, Fox still rules the NFC TV roost.

10. September 10, 2006 – NBC’s

Football Night in America, the revival of primetime TV

Colts vs. Giants / NBC Sunday Night Football

NBC had lost the AFC package to CBS in 1998. The Peacock was void of the NFL and was determined to get the league back in house.

Monday Night Football on ABC had lost its luster. So TV guru and NBC Sports head Dick Ebersol thought big, pitching the league a Football Night in America. He promised the NFL that he’d employ all assets at his disposal and as such, restore the glitter of primetime NFL telecasts. His big concession from the league was a commitment to a flex schedule to increase ratings and advance advertiser appeal. It has. Every year Football Night in America is among the top rated programs in the country. The Giants-Colts matchup was the first regular season prime timer that NBC aired on a Sunday. John Madden, who had worked for CBS, Fox and ABC, joined Al Michaels at NBC.

11. January 24, 1982 – CBS

Super Bowl XVI / Highest rated Super Bowl ever

Bengals vs. 49ers

This one has stood the test of time. The numbers are still eye-popping. Not only is it the highest rated Super Bowl in history, it remains one of the highest rated television programs ever. More than 85 million viewers tuned in, against a total population of 231 million. The game produced a final national Nielsen rating of 49.1 and a whopping 73 share. The game was close. The Niners won 26-21 and weather conditions nationally were conducive for stay at home television viewing.

It was also the first Super Bowl played in a cold weather city, albeit of course indoors at the old Silverdome outside of Detroit.

One other note, it was John Madden’s first Super Bowl assignment. The ex-coach was quite novel. He was eccentric and irreverent, Madden was fashioning a fresh approach to commentary. He echoed the sounds of the field and fans loved it. For the next quarter century, he would dominate NFL television.

Bottom line: The NFL takes no prisoners.

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David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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Michael Green
6 months ago

Interesting! I wonder about the first cable NFL telecast–not just ESPN doing the draft, but the NFL going that route.

The thing about the 1958 game is that it probably stands alone: not only was it great at the network level, but it really put the NFL on the map with the New York media, which were looking for something to replace the Dodgers and the Giants. The dumbest thing MLB may ever have done is to leave New York City vacant for that period. Just four years, but four important years.