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The Super Bowl That Almost Wasn't

It's a broadcaster's worst nightmare: Super Bowl Sunday; 90 million people are watching the biggest sports event of the year; your dual generators with automatic backup give out; and suddenly America is looking at a black screen.

That's unlikely to happen to Fox when it broadcasts Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3. But it was nearly a reality for CBS during its own broadcast last year.

On Super Sunday morning last year, as it was prepping to kick off its coverage at 11, CBS lost all power in its broadcast compound outside Miami's Dolphin Stadium.

"The entire compound went, everything that was there—the edit suites, the production trucks, the truck for the pre-game show, the whole ball of wax," recalls Ken Aagaard, CBS Sports senior VP of operations and production services. "All I could think was, 'Not on a Super Bowl Sunday.'"

Technicians got the generators back up and running. But less than two hours later, they went down again. CBS finally figured out that untying the generators—thus eliminating the automatic backup feature—allowed a single generator to work by itself, and the compound was back up and running by 11. But the rest of the day was a nail-biter.

"We were going on a single generator for the biggest event we would do all year," says Aagaard, who also arranged to use the NFL's international feed as backup.

The lone generator pulled through in the end, but Aagaard wasn't done sweating: The generator supplier couldn't replicate the problem in a post-game post-mortem.

Sure enough, the issue resurfaced months later at Augusta National Golf Club, as CBS was preparing for the Masters tournament—both generators failed. This time, Aagaard remembered what a CBS lighting technician had told him after the Super Bowl, about how his own generator in Hawaii often failed when the Navy was sending high-powered transmissions to ships at sea.

Turns out that wireless communications systems at Augusta National had overpowered the frequencies used by CBS' dual generators to communicate with each other and caused them to shut down.

But it wasn't the sorts of unlicensed devices in the hands of spectators that broadcasters and sports leagues fear will wreak havoc with wireless microphones if the FCC allows them to operate in the broadcast spectrum's "white spaces." It was the licensed walkie-talkies and headsets used by the venue personnel that thwarted the generators.

CBS solved the problem by placing high-end shielding on the cables running between the generators to reduce outside interference, and hasn't had the problem since.

Fox hasn't experienced the interference issue, but engine problems plagued its generators at the NFC Championship in Green Bay, where the network resorted to stadium power. For Super Sunday, Fox isn't taking any chances: It will have three generators and a standby link to the University of Phoenix Stadium's power in the unlikely event that triple-redundancy fails.

Damn Strike!

There may be a silver lining to the writers' strike: fewer indecency complaints.

In its recent "state of the commission" report, the FCC tallied just 4,638 indecency or obscenity complaints in the second quarter of 2006 (the most recent available) compared to 149,457 for the previous three months.

Parents Television Council's policy director Dan Isett says such complaints (most of which are filed by PTC members) come in cycles. But he attributed the 2006 drop to a scarcity of original programming—something the strike-stricken networks are contending with now.

"If it is all reruns and reality shows and not a lot of first-run programming, then obviously there is going to be a corresponding decline in what people contact the FCC about," Isett theorized.

What's more, the strike's effect on awards shows has already limited occasions for fleeting profanities. Remember, it was swearing on the Billboard Awards and the Golden Globes (which was scuttled this month by threats of picketing) that helped spur the FCC's crackdown in the first place.

"The ongoing internal joke with our entertainment analysts here," says Isett, "is that they are quickly going to run out of anything to do and we'll have to lay them off."

Surely they'll find something to complain about.

With Glen Dickson and John Eggerton