A Saturday night prime time match up between the undefeated Birmingham Stallions and the Michigan Panthers had been plodding along smoothly, that is until lightning struck twice, literally and metaphorically.
NBC’s audience was in for a surprise when the broadcast abruptly faded to black with 2:30 left in the 4th quarter. Panthers’ quarterback Shea Patterson was mic’d up setting up for the next play when the television went dark. National broadcasts faded to a commercial followed by a local news report, game show, or other non-USFL related programming. This left some viewers miffed at NBC for pulling the plug.
A number of factors came into play that potentially led to the broadcast being cut short. Earlier in the match a nearly 40-minute lightning delay interrupted the second quarter. While this is not the first instance of lightning interfering with USFL operations, it nevertheless forced NBC up against their flagship program Saturday Night Live.
The season finale was was set to air at 11:30 ET and Stallions-Panthers was dangerously close to eclipsing SNL. In the battle between the Fox company owned USFL and SNL in its 47th season, NBC made it clear which one took priority.
The game was eventually moved to CNBC and Peacock to play out the remaining time. The score remained unchanged with the Panthers falling to the Stallions 33-17, but the decision loomed large with football fans.
NBC is no stranger to this particular scenario. The network was involved in the infamous Heidi Bowl (or “The Heidi Game”) during an NFL game on November 17, 1968 between the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders. In the middle of a high scoring bout between two AFL powerhouses the network suddenly switched to a broadcast of the movie Heidi at 7:00 PM due to an internal communication snafu. Viewers were outraged as they missed a comeback by the Raiders who ended up winning 43-32. Moving forward, all NFL games would aired through until their conclusion followed by local programming of the home team markets, effectively changing sports television.
Had the game been hosted on the Fox network this situation may have never come to pass, but Fox also does not have a cultural touchstone like SNL on Saturday night to compete with sports programming. Either way, a perfect storm of events resulted in a phenomenon that gridiron enthusiasts are all too familiar with.