Behind the Super Bowl: How CBS Plans to Pull Off TV's Biggest Event
This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The Friday night before the matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome -- New Orleans' massive stadium that seats more than 75,000 fans, who have been known to cause a ruckus that can hit 120 decibels, the equivalent of standing underneath a commercial aircraft as it's about to take off -- will play host to a mere thousand people in the stands, there to witness a quiet scrimmage between two local high school football teams.
To prepare for this seemingly low-wattage affair, veteran CBS Sports anchor James Brown will go about his normal pregame ritual: a cardio workout to get the adrenaline circulating, inspirational verses from the Bible to focus the mind and gospel music from singer Yolanda Adams in order to be in the proper mood of reverence for an event that is akin to a national religion.
See, what looks to be a lazy Friday in the Big Easy is actually a full-on dress rehearsal for Super Bowl XLVII. Those high school teams will be running some of the same plays the professionals are expected to run Feb. 3 so that Brown -- who in 1973 was cut by the NBA's Atlanta Hawks and vowed never to be caught unprepared again -- and CBS can work out the kinks. "It's important we get everything right," he says.
Yes, the Super Bowl is rehearsed. Of course it is. After all, it's the biggest TV event of the year, routinely watched by more than 100 million people. CBS pays $620 million a year for the rights under its current deal (and will pony up $1.08 billion annually under a new deal that begins with the 2014 season). So the network wants to be certain that everything runs smoothly -- which means, among other things, making sure that an unprecedented 70 cameras are in the right position and that the production crew understands the precise amount of luminescence raining down from the stadium's 15,000 lighting fixtures.
The network will spend what sources say is $2.5 million to $3 million to produce the big game -- more than double the cost of a regular-season matchup. And CBS is determined this year to get its money's worth from the 47th Super Bowl -- the 18th for the network. The network's broadcast center in New Orleans' Jackson Square will be home to 15 different shows across every division in the company (news, daytime, late night, syndication, cable, radio, online), while freshman drama Elementary will get the coveted postgame slot -- and CBS stars including Elementary's Lucy Liu, How I Met Your Mother's Neil Patrick Harris and Hawaii Five-0's Daniel Dae Kim will be in attendance inside the Superdome. "We've never done anything like this before," says Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports.
The Super Bowl has come a long way since the first one in 1967, which was arranged only 60 days before kickoff, nearly relegated to closed-circuit television and then blacked out in the Los Angeles market, where the game was played. NBC and CBS paid a total of $9.5 million for the first four Super Bowls and, compared to today's game, the production values were out of the Stone Age.
But then the TV networks went all U.S. vs. USSR with one another. "There was kind of a nuclear war in the '70s and '80s," recalls Don Ohlmeyer, former president of NBC Sports and the first producer of ABC's Monday Night Football. "CBS would use 21 cameras one year, and the next year NBC would use 22, and the next year CBS would use 23. It was like mutually assured destruction; it was just too much equipment."
Then came instant replay, which treated each play as if it were as deserving of scrutiny as the Zapruder film. "A game that was fast and furious and violent was now able to be viewed in beautiful slow motion, where all the details became apparent," says NBC Sunday Night Football producer Fred Gaudelli.
Let's not forget the collage of graphics that adorn the screen. As recently as the 1990s, viewers had to wait until the beginning and end of each quarter for the score to pop up on the TV screen and until the two-minute warning for the game clock. Networks weren't very eager to share technology with one another, either. For example, back in 1998, when Fox asked ESPN to share rights for the now-ubiquitous virtual first-down markers, Gaudelli recalls a colleague saying: "If they want to pay me $1 million to buy out my exclusivity, I'll be happy to sit down and listen. But other than that, the answer is no."