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How we missed the final minutes of Sunday’s Chiefs game

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It’s not the first time that television crews have had to deal with this kind of problem — but at NFL games, the effect is worse

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

As you know if you were watching on television, the last seven and a half minutes of the Kansas City Chiefs’ 40-26 defeat of the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday wasn’t available for Chiefs fans — or for anyone else.

After the Jaguars scored a touchdown with 7:27 remaining in the game — which narrowed Kansas City’s lead to 37-19 — CBS cut away for a commercial break. When the break ended, the usual sponsorship graphics and announcements — which are normally superimposed over scenes from the stadium at the end of a break — were displayed over a black screen. When they finished, the screen went totally black. After a few moments, the picture changed to a graphic showing the score of the game. Finally, NFL Today anchor James Brown’s voice cut in, saying viewers were being switched to a “more competitive game” between the Tennessee Titans and Cleveland Browns.

Holy Heidi!

Could this have been a repeat of the notorious Heidi Game?

In November 1968, NBC’s East Coast viewers watching the final minutes of the game between the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets were switched away from the game so the network could begin broadcasting its heavily promoted made-for-TV movie Heidi.

It shouldn’t have mattered. As the network cut away, the Jets were leading 32-29 with 1:05 left in the game. But Oakland scored two touchdowns during the final minute, winning the game 43-32.

Some East Coast fans didn’t know it had happened until they read their newspapers on Monday morning.

But despite Brown’s unfortunate (and incorrect) announcement to the contrary, this isn’t what happened on Sunday. Ever since the Heidi Game — which caused a huge media uproar — league contracts with broadcast television networks have stipulated that in teams’ home markets, games must be carried all the way to their conclusion.

What actually happened was more like another game you might remember: Game 1 of the 2015 World Series between the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets. At the bottom of the fourth inning, television viewers’ screens went dark when power was lost at the Fox Sports production truck — the control room for the broadcast coverage.

According to a statement from CBS obtained by The Kansas City Star, that’s what happened in Jacksonville on Sunday.

“Due to a power outage during the Kansas City-Jacksonville game, viewers were switched to the Tennessee-Cleveland game and then to the Buffalo–New York Jets game,” Jennifer Sabatelle, senior vice president of communications for CBS, wrote in an email. “We regret that we were unable to return the audience to their scheduled game before power was restored.”

But in the 2015 World Series, the audience missed only one at-bat — not half of the final quarter.

What was the difference?

According to a statement made after the 2015 World Series incident, Fox had experienced a rare double-failure of its power generating equipment — but on that day, there was yet another backup option available to them.

“Before the start of the bottom of the fourth inning of tonight’s World Series Game 1, a rare electronics failure caused both the primary and backup generators inside the Fox Sports production compound to lose power,” Fox said in their statement. “The issue was immediately addressed, although it resulted in the audience missing one at-bat during the time needed to switch to carriage of Major League Baseball’s international feed, powered by a different generator on site.”

So this actually comes down to the different ways major league baseball and the NFL handle their broadcasting deals.

In MLB, most regular-season games are carried under contracts worked out by individual teams — not the league as a whole. So a particular game might be broadcast by two different crews of people using entirely different (and independent) sets of equipment to broadcast the game to their local markets. That turns out to be true for playoff games, too. In the 2015 World Series, Fox was able to switch over to the video being produced by another company that was providing international coverage; all they had to do was add their own audio (from their English-speaking commentators) to get through the night.

But when it comes to TV coverage, the NFL is a whole different animal. TV rights for regular and post-season games are controlled (and sold to TV networks) by the league — not by individual teams. That has advantages. The biggest is that the league-wide television contract is one of the cornerstones of the NFL’s salary cap system; the amount of money available for players’ salaries is based on league television revenue, which is shared equally between all teams.

But it also means that at a given game, there’s only one crew (and one set of equipment) on site to provide live TV coverage of an NFL game. Furthermore, everything flows from that coverage — not just the network’s own broadcast, but Internet live streams, highlight videos... everything. If there is a catastrophic failure at the production truck — as appears to have occurred on Sunday — everything grinds to a halt.

Did CBS fail to have a backup generator present in Jacksonville on Sunday? We don’t know; the network didn’t say. But as we learned in 2015, even a double-failure can occur — and under the NFL’s system for regular-season games, there is little room for that kind of problem.

But as a viewer, there’s always one more option — as I was reminded by my good friend (and old radio colleague) Christa Patrick on Monday:

Here’s to keeping a radio in your TV room — and hoping that the backup generators always work.