Throughout the post-season, I've written various columns about the ratings and the announcers for the NFL, and I've enjoyed doing them. The Super Bowl, however, is difficult. You know who's calling the game, what to expect from both teams, and more or less, what to expect from the people calling the game. Also, you know a billion freakin' people are gonna watch this, no matter who lines up on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. ET.
Let's take a look at the viewership figures for the last 10 Super Bowls:
Super Bowl XXXVII (Tampa Bay vs. Oakland, ABC): 88.6 million
Super Bowl XXXVIII (New England vs. Carolina, CBS): 89.8 million
Super Bowl XXXIX (New England vs. Philadelphia, Fox): 86.0 million
Super Bowl XL (Pittsburgh vs. Seattle, ABC): 90.7 million
Super Bowl XLI (Indianapolis vs. Chicago, CBS): 93.1 million
Super Bowl XLII (NY Giants vs. New England, Fox): 97.4 million
Super Bowl XLIII (Pittsburgh vs. Arizona, NBC): 98.7 million
Super Bowl XLIV (New Orleans vs. Indianapolis, CBS): 106.4 million
Super Bowl XLV (Green Bay vs. Pittsburgh, Fox): 111.0 million
Super Bowl XLVI (NY Giants vs. New England, NBC): 111.3 million
So, one might guess that because it's not a game between New York-Boston, two massive, sports crazy, rivaled east coast markets, that the numbers for this Super Bowl might go down. But the last New York-New England Super Bowl drew huge numbers, and then three successive Super Bowls featuring much smaller markets in each all drew much higher ratings before the last Super Bowl topped them all. While it's no sure thing that a Baltimore-San Francisco Super Bowl will top last year's and hit 112 million viewers, let's face it... the numbers haven't dropped in seven years. I'd keep betting the over.
The point is, almost all of the factors involved in this broadcast are known quantities. Let's use this space to discuss why I think CBS is the worst network when it comes to broadcasting marquee NFL games.
Now, this is no disrespect to the network, which does great work with the SEC, March Madness, the Masters, etc. Those broadcasts all feel like great events because of the work CBS does on them. The NFL, however ... it just doesn't seem as if CBS ever makes a Broncos-Patriots games shine more than the two annual Bengals-Browns games they televise.
Part of this has to do with their lead broadcast team. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are, despite the presence of Jon Gruden on ESPN, probably my least favorite "A-Team" in NFL TV. I know the knock on Nantz is that you suspect he'd rather be at Augusta even when he's calling the Super Bowl, and those are arguments worth having at another time. My problem with Nantz is that football is simply his third-best sport, and it's the one that draws him the most attention.
In the middle of the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game, one of the Patriot running backs (I want to say Shane Vereen, but I'm not 100 percent sure) made a big play, and Nantz described it and then -- in the middle of the play -- went into some rambling story about the player's college exploits. Now, golf and basketball have ample time for storytelling -- hell, so does football -- but the fourth quarter of the AFC title game is not the time. Joe Buck has been criticized for seemingly having a large ego, but he's miles better at letting a moment breathe and be about the moment than Nantz is.
It doesn't help that Phil Simms seemingly gets worse every year. Each season, it seems as if he and Troy Aikman are in some kind of secret fantasy pool to figure out who can come up with the more ridiculous excuse to not blame a quarterback for an interception. I mean, you can just visit Phil Simms Quotes for reasons why he has declined over the past few years. Needless to say, I am thankful that the Super Bowl provides the most distractions from announcer prattle of any sporting event on earth.
Let's take a look at three of the more frivolous portions of the broadcast - CBS' pre-game, the halftime show, and the network's post-Super Bowl programming.
CBS has a lot of material to work with, and they're going to try and cover pretty much everything. Feature stories on the Harbaugh brothers (in a sitdown interview with James Brown), Ray Lewis, Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Colin Kaepernick, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, and Aldon and Justin Smith will fill time during the four-hour pre-game show, which will feature CBS' usual studio crew, as well as guest analyst Clay Matthews.
Some softer, more sentimental features will also bring some emotional content to the show. These pieces include a special interview with former Baltimore special teams captain O.J. Brigance about his fight with Lou Gherig's disease, an interview with Chuck Pagano, a look at NFL player safety, and a story about a high school football player injured at the massacre in Aurora, Colo. CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley will conduct the now seemingly annual interview with President Barack Obama.
Also, OneRepublic will stare into their future as they share the stage with Matchbox Twenty. This would be an opportune time to order the pizza. Even if you already have pizza, go ahead and order another.
The Halftime Show
I think we're all relieved -- despite the nonsensical lipsync-gate that's been following her around -- that Beyonce will be playing at halftime. She's the first performer in years who isn't either over the age of 50 or the Black Eyed Peas. That Beyonce is young and not the Black Eyed Peas will be huge keys to improvement, to use some typical cliche analyst talk, for the halftime show.
I can say with utmost certainty that I am a Beyonce fan, and I think most of the people who read this will agree. I don't own any of her albums, but I never turn a song of hers off when I hear it, and some of her tunes are usually the most addictive and lasting of her genre (somewhere between R&B and pop), and also, holy hell, have you heard "Say My Name" recently? That song rules as far as late 90's R&B goes.
I'm no expert on Beyonce tunes, and I won't be putting any money in any "setlist pools" like I did (and won!) for Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty. That said, if Destiny's Child is reuniting with Beyonce at the halftime show, winning a contest like that would be nearly impossible. You're talking about fitting nearly a decade and a half of hits into 12 minutes. It will almost certainly be a medley, rather than three or four songs performed in full. Will Jay-Z show up for "Crazy in Love"? Last year, Madonna had M.I.A., Nicki Minaj and Cee-Lo, but I'd be willing to bet that even if the other children of destiny show up, Beyonce will keep all eyes on her.
While Beyonce is, arguably, no longer on top of the charts (her last record, 4, was largely considered a commercial flop) she still commands more attention than any of the pop stars who currently top them. She's one of the only modern singers who can make a moment without having to resort to Gaga-esque weirdness. For the first time in a decade, the Super Bowl Halftime Show should feel relevant and almost necessary for keeping us away from football longer than any other halftime show of the season.
CBS is not only the worst NFL network, it's also the worst network period. It airs the most overrated sitcoms on television (The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Two Broke Girls), the dullest slate of drama (NCIS, CSI, NCIS: Los Angeles) and the least interesting reality fare (Stop pretending Undercover Boss is uplifting, people). Sure, CBS gets it right for one show in each genre (How I Met Your Mother, The Good Wife and The Amazing Race) but three decent shows does not excuse a wealth of useless, unwatchable crap.
CBS is following up the Super Bowl with Elementary, which has a lot of buzz on the internet because Lucy Liu plays a female Watson in yet another reinvention of the Sherlock Holmes character. I find it strange how little I am impressed with this show, which seems more like CBS wanting to make another CSI spinoff but didn't want to be too overly obvious, so they just stuck Holmes and Watson into a CSI-type show and attempted to cash in.
After Elementary and the late local news, CBS gives a much-deserved 11:30 showcase to The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, easily the best network late night show. I do worry that folks who might still be tuned in at this hour won't know what on earth to make of the show, but it's coming from New Orleans and has some decent guests (Drew Brees, Steve Carell, Neil Patrick Harris) so hopefully folks don't tune out if Craig has gay robot skeleton sidekick.
This all sounds a little bit more cynical than it really should be. The Super Bowl really can't be broadcast perfectly, given all the distractions and promotions and sideshows. It's really hard to make a sporting event a true television program, but the NFL and whichever network broadcasting the game keeps trying harder every year. The problem for me is that Fox and NBC have much better casts of characters to keep those distractions from becoming annoying, rather than just typical Super Bowl quirkiness. I'm sure CBS will do an okay job of broadcasting the big game, but I still think we'll look at it as the third best of the past three.