In a forgettable 1980 game between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins, NBC attempted the unthinkable.
December 20, 1980: The only time an NFL game was seen, but not heard.
In Week 16 of the 1980 season, the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins faced off in the Orange Bowl with low stakes. Neither was in the playoff race, as New York limped with a 3-12 record while Miami sported an 8-7.
For NBC, the channel responsible for broadcasting the case, the increase was non-existent. Ratings were likely to be poor, even with the New York market involved.
With little to lose, Don Ohlmeyer, then executive producer of NBC Sports, came up with a radical notion: What if the game goes without advertisers?
Ohlmeyer, who spoke to ESPN in 2010 for the game’s 30th anniversary, said he often felt like broadcasters were crowding TV shows. Instead of hearing about the action, what would an NFL game be like without the constant storytelling fans had grown accustomed to?
“Here we had this play dog” Ohlmeyer said. “Part of my thinking was what could we do to get fans to watch this? People could follow a game with pictures, graphics and hear the announcer from the sound system in the background.
In the end, too much sound was the biggest issue NBC faced on that sunny afternoon. Arnie Reif, then director of sports technical operations for NBC, told the Washington Post it was mostly a frustrating day with the network trying to innovate.
“It’s the noise of the crowd,” Reif said. “He muffles noises on the pitch. We’re trying to turn everything off but we can’t get the line of scrimmage. We can get a game of the quarterback, the punters and the kickoffs, but we can’t get the sounds in play. “
The Jets won 24-17, but the score and the winner have long been forgotten. Instead, what is remembered is one of the weirder episodes the game has seen from a TV standpoint. Oddly enough, despite all the problems that NBC encountered during the broadcast, more than 60% of fans respondents who watched the game were optimistic about the new format.
Still, the reaction was not enough to make advertisers obsolete, much to the relief of NBC broadcaster Dick Enberg.
“My first reaction was incredibly nerve, nervous”, enberg told ESPN in 2010. “We get paid to talk, so we all want to fill the air with lots of exciting words. We all got together, hoping Ohlmeyer was completely wrong. I mean, he was flirting with the rest of our lives. What if this crazy idea really worked?
From Ohlmeyer’s perspective, the game was a success. NBC downgraded a rating to 13.5, close to the average rating of 14.9 for the year.
In the end, the day was best summed up by the only man speaking for NBC on the show, NFL ’80 host, Bryant Gumbel.
“It lacks a certain degree of drama,” Gumbel said, “unless someone’s around to say,“ Okay, here’s why we’re going to shut up and watch this. Here is the stake. Every time they do a match-based golf championships, on paper it sounds like a wonderful idea. In truth, what you find is that there is a lot of dead space between the shots.
Even in a meaningless contest outside of playing and draft positions, it’s hard to imagine someone in Ohlmeyer’s position taking such a chance. The NFL has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry with carefully crafted storytelling and graphics packages for every game. Today, the backlash would be overwhelming with social media governing the backlash.
By 1980, the league was still booming even though it had clearly become America’s pastime. The NFL and its partners were not systematically monitored, with football still seen as a game played by rich men, but not by those who profit from generational wealth.
In short, the National Football League was a great time with the occasional feeling of small weather, able to experience without a seismic flashback.
Over 40 years ago, NBC and Ohlmeyer had fun with a bad hand. They provided an indelible memory, without a soundtrack.