How the Golden Bowl Got So Super

Related: Super Bowl 50 Marks an IP Milestone

The Super Bowl is always a TV celebration with no peer, but add a big, round number to it—such as, say, 50—and it attains even grander status (even sans Roman numerals, which the NFL has ditched for the occasion). As the Feb. 7 kickoff in Santa Clara, Calif., approaches, CBS has been vocal in predicting it will eclipse the 114 million viewers who tuned in last year, with more cameras, newer technology, and a degree of coverage that takes the concept of hype to entirely new levels.

Befitting the game’s Silicon Valley setting, there will be plenty of new tech toys. Four pylon cams in each end zone and shot-from-all-angles technology Eyevision 360 will enhance the production, along with some groundbreaking use of IP delivery. So will the 70 total cameras, up from the 55 CBS deployed at its last Bowl go-round in 2013. Toss in stunning Bay Area scene-setters from a fixedwing plane, “gold carpet” coverage of celebs approaching the stadium and, with any luck, a decent game, and the stage is set for a telecast that may just deliver on the boundless buildup.

There’s no added pressure to being No. 50, said Harold Bryant, executive producer/senior VP of production at CBS Sports. “It’s an opportunity and a challenge,” he said of the landmark game. “We look back at the other Super Bowls and do our best to elevate this one.”

Super Bowl 50 hits at a most opportune time for the NFL. Interest in the sport has never been greater, and the game pits a storied quarterback enjoying his (presumably) last hurrah (Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning) against a gifted upstart (Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton). And at $5 million a 30-second spot, marketers are compelled to up their ad game like never before. “It’s the game, the commercials, the communal aspect of it, the unbelievably increasing interest in the NFL,” said Bill Carroll, Katz Television Group senior VP and director of content strategy. “You put it all together and it becomes an all-day event.”

Not All That Super at First

Ah, but what humble beginnings the Super Bowl had. Forty-nine years ago, the game pitted the best in the NFL against the cream of rival AFL. The pregame show was a half-hour, a marching band played at halftime and 11 cameras captured the action at the Los Angeles Coliseum, which was awarded the “AFLNFL World Championship Game” just six weeks before.

“It was rather hastily put together,” said Randy O. Williams, author of 50 Years, 50 Moments: The Most Unforgettable Plays in Super Bowl History.

As such, the stadium was just twothirds sold out, and a TV blackout in place in the nation’s second-largest market.

Perhaps most peculiar, both CBS and NBC aired the game, with Ray Scott handling play-by-play in the first half, Jack Whitaker the second and Frank Gifford serving as analyst throughout.

The telecast was hardly flawless. The second half kickoff was followed by a flurry of whistles and a stoppage. NBC was still in commercial during the restart, resulting in an official do-over. “I think that’s the first time and the last time that happened,” said Whitaker at the TCA winter press tour in Pasadena last month. (NFL Network recently re-aired the game—cobbled together from surviving footage—for the first time since it first appeared.)

Super Bowl Shuffle

The Green Bay Packers thrashed the Kansas City Chiefs in that inauspicious debut Bowl. Yet over the decades, the game became, as several pundits termed it, a second Thanksgiving—a day full of food, friends, family and football.

The birth of the Super Bowl as a cultural happening may have been 1969, with Jets quarterback Joe Namath’s famous guarantee of victory against the widely favored Baltimore Colts. Super Bowl III had a giant media city represented in New York, a celeb-friendly setting in Miami and a swaggering star in Namath, not to mention the shocking result. “That one really did light the flame,” said author Williams.

Super Bowls X and XIII (1976 and 1979) pitted the Dallas Cowboys—they of the presumptuous “America’s Team” banner and sexy cheerleaders—against Mean Joe Greene and his working-class Pittsburgh Steeler compadres, the rivalry driving significant viewership gains.

In 1982, the 49ers-Bengals match-up featured a telegenic Hall of Fame quarterback in Joe Montana, and huge interest following the NFC Championship, in which Niner Dwight Clark hauled in what is forever known as “The Catch” in the waning moments to beat the Cowboys by a point. That Bowl did a 49 national rating, still a record, and its 85 million viewers were 17 million more than the year before.

Super Bowl XX, in 1986, represented a huge TV market and a collection of characters that seemed to jump off a Hollywood script. Those Chicago Bears included free-spirited QB Jim McMahon, a snarling coach in Mike Ditka and a rotund lineman/sometime running back known as Refrigerator Perry. “They were goofballs, but talented goofballs,” said Williams. “And what other team had its own rap song?”

Almost 93 million watched that game, which stood as the high-water mark for the next decade. “Around then is when watching the Super Bowl became a national holiday,” said Neal Pilson, former CBS Sports president.

Much of what followed failed to live up to its pregame promise, with blowouts more the norm than tight games, including the Redskins thrashing the Broncos 42-10 in 1988, the 49ers crushing the Broncos 55-10 two years later, and the Cowboys piling on the Buffalo Bills 52-17 in 1993.

But the last dozen Bowls have been a different story, the down-to-the-wire games a boon for viewer, network and advertiser alike. In 2004, the Patriots and Panthers scored 37 points in the fourth quarter, none more dramatic than New England’s long field goal to win it with four seconds left. In 2008, Giant David Tyree made his famed “helmet catch” to set up the winning score. And who can forget last year, with the Seahawks coming up a yard short when QB Russell Wilson threw an interception on the Patriots’ one-yard line in the waning seconds.

Even a casual fan could appreciate the drama.

Down With ‘People’

The halftime stage also emerged as a setting for the biggest names in pop music to perform. For years, the break’s entertainment included marching bands or the polyester-draped cheesefest known as Up With People; in 1989’s eminently forgettable presentation, viewers donned 3D glasses for a magic show from Elvis impersonator/“prince of prestidigitation” Elvis Presto.

In 1992, as NBC trotted out Gloria Estefan and a pair of figure skaters, Fox—always up for a good counterprogram—aired a live In Living Color, showing a countdown clock on the screen so viewers knew when to get back to the game.

A year later, Michael Jackson was moonwalking across the halftime stage at the Rose Bowl Stadium.

“Someone got smart and saw that we were losing 4-5 ratings points during halftime,” said Pilson, now head of sports consultancy Pilson Communications.

The halftime show became, for many, a bigger spectacle than the game, and no longer an opportunity to leave the room or change the channel. In 2004, a heated duet between Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake ushered the phrases “Nipplegate” and “wardrobe malfunction” into our lexicon. The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Prince and Bruce Springsteen have played in recent years, and U2’s “Beautiful Day,” performed just five months after the Sept. 11 attacks, helped sooth a frayed nation.

Coldplay, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars headline this year’s interval.

Mix the festivities in with the game’s midwinter setting, when the winter holidays are a memory and Valentine’s Day, school break, baseball spring training and, for much of the country, agreeable weather, are a ways off, and the Super Bowl became, as Carroll puts it, “an excuse to celebrate.”

A little wagering, whether it’s the office pool or a daily fantasy game, has also brought those who may not know a bubble screen from Bubble Guppies. Notes Carroll: “Even the folks who have no interest in football have interest in their friends who have interest in football.”

Eye on the Big Game

Super Bowl 50 leads out of highly watched conference championship games Jan. 24. Some 53.3 million viewers watched the AFC title game, won by the Broncos, and 45.7 million saw the Panthers prevail in the NFC contest. The two-game average of 49.7 million was up 8% over last year’s conference championship matches.

CBS, with Jim Nantz and Phil Simms calling the game, is leveraging all corporate assets, with significant contributions from CBS Sports Network, Showtime and CBS Entertainment, including editions of The Late Late Show with James Corden and Entertainment Tonight hosted from Super Bowl 50. “There has never been a promotional campaign as broad-ranging and as large as the promotional campaign behind Super Bowl 50,” Sean McManus, chairman, CBS Sports, said at the TCA winter press tour. “[President of marketing] George Schweitzer and his team have involved every one of our stars, every one of our hit programs in all dayparts, and it’s been an amazing effort.”

Conan O’Brien, host of Conan on TBS, makes a rare appearance on CBS Feb. 6, hosting the awards show NFL Honors from the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. Even children’s programmers are jumping in—Viacom’s Nickelodeon will air “Nickelodeon at Super Bowl Week” across several nights starting Feb. 1, with musical performances and network talent reporting from the Bay Area.

On game day, CBS will offer seven hours of pregame talk emanating from four sets, and much more on cable and radio. Pilson smiles at the amount of coverage. “When the pre-game was two hours, we were concerned that it was too long and we’d lose our audience,” he said.

CBS Sports will unveil a new logo and graphics for the game, and exec producer Bryant is eager to share the tech advancements with a giant audience. Eyevision 360, comprised of 36 cameras strung around the upper deck of Levi’s Stadium, freezes the moment and revolves around the play, then continues to play out the scene. As Bryant puts it, it’s an opportunity to see a play—say, all the receivers being closely covered as a quarterback takes a sack—not just from the traditional viewer’s perspective, but from the QB’s vantage point. “It’s a great tool for the analysts to tell a story,” he said. “And viewers want to see plays from all angles.”

And the pylon cams, four per end zone, do more than show a player bearing down on a corner TD. They can offer a fresh perspective on whether a ballcarrier broke the plane of the goal line, and if a player stepped out of bounds en route to the end zone.

The last time CBS carried the game, the New Orleans Superdome sustained a power outage that interrupted the game for 34 minutes. While the stadium officials accepted responsibility for the snafu, Bryant said it nonetheless represents a teachable moment for broadcasters. “We learned from that experience to make sure we’re backed up properly for whatever comes up,” he said. “You learn, you grow, you do it better the next time.”

Pilson refers to Super Bowl 50 as a “perfect storm”—bringing together unprecedented interest in the league, social media’s heyday and top technology to deliver the game into our laps. “Everything contributes to people staying home to participate in a national experience,” he said, “that brings all 50 states, and people overseas, together.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone is content director at B+C and Multichannel News. He joined B+C in 2005 and has covered network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television, including writing the "Local News Close-Up" market profiles. He also hosted the podcasts "Busted Pilot" and "Series Business." His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The L.A. Times, The Boston Globe and New York magazine.