If CBS had treated the Super Bowl blackout as "news," who would have been more upset, viewers or advertisers?
"CBS buys the rights to Super Bowl broadcasts to make buckets of money, not to serve the public. Yet there were an estimated one hundred and eight million Americans watching the broadcast. The network's obligations to such a vast viewership should have led it to privilege the imperatives of journalism over those of commerce."
-- Steve Coll, in "The Super Bowl's Journalism Malfunction,"
in newyorker.com's "Daily Comment"
in newyorker.com's "Daily Comment"
Even I, who paid about as little attention as it's possible for a citizen in these parts in A.D. 2013 to pay to the Super Bowl, know about the blackout. And the impression I've gotten from what has filtered through to me is that it became sort of all part of the show that was this thrill-packed 34-31 eventual nail-biter. (And exciting it may have been, but it's a hard sell to make as if a 34-31 football game was a good game.)
Steve notes that going back to the '70s there has been a tradition of imagining terrorist fun 'n' games at American premier fun game. He ventures that when the lights went out at the start of the third quarter last night, he wasn't the only one who flashed back to Thomas Harris's 1975 novel Black Sunday, probably the best-known of the thrillers that have used the Super Bowl as a backdrop for terrorist evil-doing.
But beyond the natural initial period of "disorientation and unease," Steve says, a journalist's natural response is: "Breaking news!"
Surely, I thought upon my couch, CBS, the network of Eric Sevareid, Dan Rather, and "60 Minutes" -- the network that had lately recruited Charlie Rose to anchor its morning show -- would tear into this story.And yet, as Steve pieces it together from subsequent reportage, CBS never treated it as anything other than a sporting event. Why, he wonders, didn't CBS president and chief executive Les Moonves "throw the broadcast to his news division in New York for at least an interval, to signal to viewers that the network recognized that something unusual and newsworthy had just occurred, and to attempt to inform them, as best as possible, with reliable reporting?"
It did not. What followed was embarrassing and irresponsible. The blackout lasted thirty-four minutes. During that time, CBS acted as if it possessed no news division. It relied on James Brown, the congenial jock-wrangling anchor of "The NFL Today," to handle the story. He and his fellow commentators -- retired quarterback Dan Marino, retired N.F.L. coach Bill Cowher, and retired tight end Shannon Sharpe -- acted as if the unexplained loss of electricity in a stadium filled with seventy thousand-plus people during the most-watched American television event of the year was just a twist in the story of who would win the football game, and nothing more.
Surely there were other questions to ask as the minutes ticked by: Why did the N.F.L. fail, throughout the entire interruption, to provide an informed spokesman to explain the problem and the plan to fix it? Who was responsible for the stadium's operations? What did the local utility, Entergy, have to say? Could the mayor of New Orleans, who was surely in the stadium, be summoned on camera?
Moonves told the Times that he knew he had the option to switch to CBS News in New York, but "we were told it would be twenty minutes.…We knew it wouldn't be down for hours." Even so, why did CBS not immediately scramble its news producers to hunt down subjects for on-air interviews? Why was there no off-air reporting relayed from CBS News to James Brown about whether there was any indication of foul play, or any information at all available beyond the no-commenting, self-protecting public-relations arm of the N.F.L. juggernaut, to which we have become all too accustomed during its systematic campaign of denial about football-related concussions?As Steve points out, though, "CBS buys the rights to Super Bowl broadcasts to make buckets of money, not to serve the public." And he suggests that the on-air coverage of the blackout, such as it was, was "public-realtions messaging" whose essence was:
Even the sports banter on the "NFL Today" set was timid, seemingly self-modulated to give no offense to CBS bosses, New Orleans, or the N.F.L. What about the risk of hamstring pulls and the like to players who have an unscheduled thirty-minute cooldown right after halftime? We watched players stretching for dull minute after minute but heard little more than vague speculation about "momentum."
"Everything worked exactly as it was supposed to do, and therefore the lights went out for thirty minutes." It was surprising that the joint statement [by Entergy, the utility company, and the operators of the Super Bowl] did not go on to chastise other Super Bowl hosts for failing to have blackouts of their own, since they are apparently signs of a well-oiled utility machine.Steve recalls that Black Sunday was written "in the aftermath of the 1972 Summer Olympics at Munich, where Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes," and that --
Munich's shadow has informed the planning of every network broadcaster responsible for Olympics coverage in the four decades since. Disaster and counterterrorism preparations are a staple of pre-Games coverage. Network planners take for granted that they must be prepared to convert sports broadcasts to breaking-news broadcasts at any time.Which brings us back to CBS honcho Les Moonves's comments to the NYT's "Media Decoder." "It was like there was another event inside an event," he said. Which prompts Steve's suggestion: "Another term for that might be news."
"We heard everything from hackers to people who had bet on San Francisco to Beyoncé draining all the energy out of the place at halftime," Moonves continued. And yet his network made no effort on air to sort rumor from fact or to acknowledge the cacophony of questions and speculation coursing through Twitter feeds. CBS rehearsed Beyoncé's halftime performance to within an inch of her dance-step stage marks, but the network of Edward R. Murrow had no plan for the unexpected.