The decision wasn't in a league with the infamous one NBC made in 1968 to cut away from the ending of an incredible AFC football game to show a rerun of the film "Heidi," but some Baltimore area viewers were feeling a "Heidi Bowl" kind of pain Sunday night when WJZ (Channel 13) left a extra inning Orioles game to carry the top-rated newsmagazine "60 Minutes."
"Epic" might be too strong a word for what was going on in Boston, but it was pretty great. The Orioles, after winning a 13-inning game Friday against the Red Sox and a regular 9-inning game Saturday, were locked in a duel with the Sox that had depleted both bull pens. There were no pitchers left to put in the game.
The Orioles used designated hitter Chris Davis to pitch the 16th and 17th, and he got the win after a 3-run home run by centerfielder Adam Jones. The Red Sox were also pitching their DH.
Except if you were watching WJZ, you missed that unbelievable finale, because the station cut away from the game at 7 p.m. (in the 15th inning) to carry "60 Minutes."
Now, in fairness to WJZ, "60 Minutes" was promoting an interview with Olympic star and hometown hero Michael Phelps, and the game was also being carried on cable channel MASN.
"We made the decision to give the vast majority of viewers a choice," K.C. Robertson, a spokesperson for WJZ, said in a phone interview Sunday night.
"Viewers were alerted via a lower-screen crawl before 7 p.m. that those viewers who wanted to see the game's conclusion should switch over to MASN," he continued. "Those who wanted to see '60 Minutes' particularly the high local interest story on Baltimore Olympian Michael Phelps, were alerted to watch '60 Minutes' on WJZ. Once the game ended, WJZ viewers were also informed of the final score via a lower-screen crawl."
Robertson told the Sun he did not know what reaction—if any—WJZ received Sunday evening.
"I can't speak to that," he said. "I'm not there. I'm not tuned into that."
The folks answering the phones in the Sun newsroom were. And they heard from some of the folks who had been watching this one-for-the-record-book-game since it started at 1:35 p.m and were freaking out because they didn't have MASN.
This was, after all, a weekend of Orioles baseball when more and more fans were starting to feel a sea change had come to what had been a woeful team last year. The Orioles have been playing outstanding baseball, taking four of five games from the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox on a road trip that pessimists had predicted would bring the O's back to their losing ways. (Sunday's win gave the O's five of six against the two teams that pounded them last season.)
What WJZ viewers who don't have MASN missed in the 16th and 17th inning is the kind of sweet redemption many long-suffering O's fans have waiting for since the 1990s.
Understand, however, that the station is owned by CBS, and it is a major decision to pre-empt one of the highest-rated network shows on TV for a local baseball game -- especially when the game is on cable as well.
CBS is selling that huge national audience for "60 Minutes," and advertisers do not take such pre-emptions that cut into the audience they paid to reach lightly.
Plus, the hometown Phelps feature is something any station would go out of its way to try and offer local viewers.
WJZ would have surely been second-guessed by its bosses in New York Monday had the station stayed with the O's game.
It was not an easy call, and it was kind of a mini-perfect-storm with an epic game going 17 innings and a hometown hero being on one of the highest-rated network shows at the same time.
Still, if this weekend comes to be seen as a historic turning point in the Orioles fortunes, the pre-emption could take on a life of its own in popular memory and sports-talk lore. And WJZ is going to be second guessed endlessly by local fans for not, say, staying with the game until it ends and delaying the start of the prime-time CBS schedule the way the network does with Sunday football.
That second guessing started before the game had even ended. The question is whether it will continue into a Heidi-like eternity with Baltimore residents not yet born talking about the night WJZ cut away from the O's as if they were there in front of their TVs when it happened.
By the way, the Oakland Raiders scored two TDs in the last minute to beat the New York Jets in the Heidi Bowl -- if you were watching NBC and missed that one in '68.