Blackout Upon Blackout: NBC’s Broadcasting Fiasco

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

 The winds had calmed just enough for levity.

Battered by a ferocious and seemingly never-ending wall of wind the day before, those in and around the DC-area, faces familiar with volatile weather patterns, received a brief respite. 

On hallowed ground in Annapolis, MD, the football field of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium came to life to the sounds of a different game. With a fresh sheet of ice, the Washington Capitals played host to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the latest iteration of the NHL’s now-established spectacle of outdoor games, this time with the Stadium Series. With it, the timeless nature of the sport’s origins unfolded before fans for whom outdoor hockey games are still somewhat foreign in nature, as the region’s inconsistent weather patterns seldom provide stable enough conditions for the game to played in its purest of forms.

Under the bright lights of the gridiron, the Washington Capitals mustered one of their better performances in recent weeks as the offense came to life and the defensive efforts helped buoyed a battered Braden Holtby to the turnaround performance that was as overdue as it was needed.

Capitals fans rejoiced as their team’s solid play brought not just a respite from the worry of impending doom that so often plague’s local sports fans as the prospect of another potential heartbreaking playoff run draws ever nearer this time of year, but from the more immediate concerns regarding the disruption to their lives brought by the storm. And just as the Capitals players had found the light switch to their struggling play, the sights and sounds of the outdoor game in Annapolis seemed to bring light to the region.

And then the lights went out. Quite literally.

As the horn blew midway through the final frame, the lighting system at the old football stadium malfunctioned, and the respite from darkness came to a sudden end. Undeterred, those in attendance raised the lights from the cellphones to will the industrial lights atop the stadium back to life. The positive vibes worked. The lights were restored and the game went on.

But for many who viewed the game from afar, on screens throughout the country, the conclusion was again interrupted by technical failures of a different, preventable, and more aggravating sort.

Due to the delay caused by the late-game lighting malfunction, NBC punted the final moments of the game to their dedicated sports network, NBC Sports, to make room for local news and Saturday Night Live. However, for those away from their cable boxes as a result of choice or the aforementioned regional power disruption (this author and disgruntled sports consumer included), the game footage never resumed. For several minutes, the individual agony of thousands of hockey fans was united against a single entity: a TV network that had left them in the lurch.

It is worth noting that NBC has largely done hockey in the United States a great service. In the aftermath of the NHL lockout of 2004-2005, the Outdoor Life Network (OLN) picked up the torch of nationally televised NHL games inexplicably extinguished by longtime broadcasting partner ESPN. As OLN morphed into Versus which morphed into NBC Sports, the NHL found a new home and willing partner to bring the game back into the national spotlight.

Though there are weaknesses and blindspots in NBC’s hockey coverage (which won’t be addressed here), the network has helped bring hockey back from the brink of irrelevance in American sports. And this is why their haphazard decision to render the final moments of a game that had been hyped to incredible levels in the weeks prior was so maddening to its loyal viewers. In an age where television-viewing habits are undergoing enormous technological change, the inability of a major broadcasting company to adequately deliver complete coverage of one of its most prized assets is simply unacceptable, if not a worrying harbinger of things to come. Broadcasting decisions are never easy, and technical problems causing unexpected programming changes are never predictable. But its clear that NBC let its sports viewers down on Saturday night. For those of us needing this outdoor game to restore both some levity and confidence in our inconsistent local hockey team, NBC’s technical shortcomings were very disappointing.

In an instance, badly needed levity was undercut. Local fans will endure as they always do. The event was a success in that the Capitals notched badly-needed standings points. However, the broadcasting blackout the masked the game’s conclusion was indeed unfortunate. And the network that worked so diligently to revive televised hockey must do better in its delivery in the future. Hopefully, Saturday’s lessons will bring improvements to NBC’s decision-making and technical capabilities and the blackout in the final minutes will provide a valuable lesson for broadcasting organizations everywhere.

Positive energy in the face of turmoil and disruption was what those in the region where looking for when they filed through the gates of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. They received it. Hopefully, NBC uses the late-game broadcasting error to similar effect.

By Keith Leonard

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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7 Responses to Blackout Upon Blackout: NBC’s Broadcasting Fiasco

  1. Alpca3877 says:

    I wonder if it would have been any different if the outcome hadn’t already been obvious? As a fan since the 80s, it didn’t really surprise me though.

  2. Anonymous says:

    NBC……..You suck! Hopefully no more hockey for you!!!!

  3. Steven Kling says:

    Key point:
    In the aftermath of the incident, NBC installed special “Heidi phones”, with a connection to a different telephone exchange from other network phones, to ensure that network personnel could communicate under similar circumstances. The game also had an influence on sports broadcasting practices; the future National Football League would contractually stipulate that all game telecasts be shown to their conclusion in the markets of the visiting team, while other major leagues and events adopted similar mandates. In 1997, the Heidi Game was voted the most memorable regular season game in pro football history.

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