Julian Goodman, NBC president who battled White House and apologized for ‘Heidi Bowl,’ dies at 90

July 4, 2012

Julian Goodman, who, as president of NBC in the 1960s and 1970s, stoutly defended his network’s coverage of the Vietnam War against White House criticism, and who issued an abject apology after NBC cut away from a dramatic football game to show the TV movie “Heidi,” died July 2 at his home in Juno Beach, Fla. He was 90 and reportedly had kidney failure. NBC announced his death.

As an NBC producer working in Washington in the late 1940s and 1950s, Mr. Goodman made important contributions to the early coverage of politics on television.

He produced the second of four televised debates between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign. The debate, held at an NBC studio in Washington, attracted more than 60 million viewers.

Mr. Goodman was named president of the NBC company in 1966, responsible for all news, sports and entertainment programming. Although his background was in news, he signed Johnny Carson, the host of “The Tonight Show,” to a multimillion-dollar contract that made him the highest-paid entertainer on television.

In the 1960s, as fighting in Vietnam began to escalate, NBC and other news organizations began to present the conflict in a skeptical light — which drew criticism from political leaders in Washington, particularly after Nixon was elected president in 1968.


Julian Goodman was named president of the NBC company in 1966, responsible for all news, sports and entertainment programming. Here he appears on “Meet the Press” with Sen. Mike Mansfield, left, and Lawrence Spivak, right. (Ken Feil/The Washington Post)

Mr. Goodman increasingly found himself having to defend his network from threats of having its broadcast licenses pulled. He was named on Nixon’s “political opponents” list and, in a face-to-face meeting with White House enforcer Charles W. Colson, was pressured to offer more favorable coverage of the administration.

According to Rick Perlstein’s 2008 book “Nixonland,” Colson said that “Julian Goodman jumped out of his chair” to accommodate a White House request to run a special program about the upcoming marriage of Nixon’s daughter Tricia.

But Mr. Goodman stood firm in other matters of journalistic integrity. In 1971, after NBC and CBS ran footage of the effects of a secret U.S. bombing of Laos, Sen. Clifford P. Hansen (R-Wyo.) accused the networks of being biased against the Nixon administration and its handling of the war.

In a sharply worded letter sent to every member of Congress, Mr. Goodman wrote that Hansen and the White House were attempting to “interfere with the free flow of information” with their “groundless attacks on television journalism for partisan purposes.”

“Television journalism — together with the rest of the press,” Mr. Goodman wrote, “deserves the support of all who recognize that the very nature of our democratic system rests on the independence of the press to report events and issues free of political pressure.”

Mr. Goodman’s leadership of NBC was tested in a different way on Nov. 17, 1968, during the so-called Heidi Bowl, a game that highlighted the increasing importance of football in television programming. The New York Jets were leading the Oakland Raiders, 32-29, with less than a minute to play as the 7 p.m. programming hour approached on the East Coast.

Under contractual obligation to a sponsor to present “Heidi” at 7 p.m., NBC cut away from the game to air the made-for-TV movie of the classic children’s story about an orphan girl in the Swiss Alps.

So many irate callers jammed NBC’s switchboards that Mr. Goodman’s order to continue airing the game never reached the network’s broadcast operations center. “Heidi” went on as scheduled, and football fans in the eastern United States never saw the Raiders rally to score two touchdowns and defeat the Jets, 43-32.

“It was a forgivable error committed by humans who were concerned about the children who were expecting to see ‘Heidi,’ ” Mr. Goodman said in a statement. “I missed seeing the end of the game as much as anyone else, and we deeply regret the error.”

Compounding the confusion, NBC ran a “crawl” at the bottom of the screen announcing the final score at a crucial moment in the movie, when Heidi’s cousin had fallen from her wheelchair and was trying to walk.

New York Times television critic Jack Gould wrote that the entire event was so “awkwardly handled” that it appeared that “some network executive is always on duty but his assignment does not include watching TV.”

Julian Byrn Goodman was born May 1, 1922, in Glasgow, Ky. He attended Western Kentucky University and then served in the Army during World War II.

He joined WRC radio as a news writer in 1945 and received a bachelor’s degree in economics from George Washington University in 1948.

As a young journalist in Washington, Mr. Goodman once replaced David Brinkley on the night news desk at NBC. (Brinkley later anchored NBC’s nightly news with Chet Huntley for more than a dozen years.)

Mr. Goodman had a key role in NBC’s first TV broadcasts of political conventions in 1948 and helped propel the network’s news department to the No. 1 spot among the three major networks in the 1950s.

After moving to New York as a news executive in 1959, Mr. Goodman helped develop “instant news specials,” or in-depth documentaries prepared on short notice about breaking news events.

“I realized, quickly, that I’d never be better than just adequate as a radio reporter,” Mr. Goodman told The Washington Post in 1966, describing the trajectory of his career. “And I guess that I always wanted to run things.”

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Betty Davis Goodman of Juno Beach; four children; and six grandchildren.

When Mr. Goodman assumed the presidency of NBC, he vowed that he would not let the job overwhelm his life.

“I have four children and I am not going to let this job make a stranger of me to them,” he told The Post. “I’ve managed to play a nightly game of chess with my son and I intend to continue.”

Mr. Goodman resigned as president of NBC in 1974 to become chairman of the network’s board. He retired in 1979 and, in later years, served on many corporate boards.

In 1987, Mr. Goodman testified before Congress in favor of abolishing the Fairness Doctrine, a policy of the Federal Communications Commission that required networks to provide equal time to opposing points of view on controversial matters.

“The Fairness Doctrine needs to be eliminated, not made into law,” Mr. Goodman said. “Putting it into law, requiring that all sides of a controversial question be covered,” he said, “puts editorial judgments into the hands of a government department. Fairness should be decided by trained journalists.”

Months later, President Ronald Reagan vetoed a bill that would have made the Fairness Doctrine federal law, and all subsequent attempts to revive it have failed.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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