Sam Mellinger

The Super Bowl is more TV programming than sporting contest, and it has shaped American culture

Jonny Buckland (left to right) Guy Berryman, Chris Martin and Will Champion of Coldplay will perform in the Super Bowl 50 halftime show.
Jonny Buckland (left to right) Guy Berryman, Chris Martin and Will Champion of Coldplay will perform in the Super Bowl 50 halftime show. AP

We’re all here to watch a TV show.

They call it the Super Bowl, of course, and technically speaking it is a football game, unscripted (unless you count celebration dances, or cheerleaders), and at least a close cousin to the same game Americans have been playing since before television even existed.

They promote it (oh, do they promote it) as a competition between two teams, but if we didn’t have to put on airs the broadcast would begin with that same voice people of a certain age might remember from old sitcoms:

Super Bowl 50 is filmed before a live studio audience...

And, actually, none of this goes far enough. The Super Bowl isn’t merely a TV show, and it isn’t merely the country’s most-watched TV show. It is the most important TV show in American history, a revolutionary force, an overwhelming partnership of product and technology that made the NFL our national passion.

Beyonce once said she lip-synched a performance at the president’s inauguration because she was practicing her Super Bowl show. She’s no dummy. She knew where the big audience would be.

“The Super Bowl and television changed everything,” says Jim Steeg, a former NFL executive often credited with leading the Super Bowl’s rise in popularity and influence. “Look, when the Super Bowl started, pro football was well behind baseball, and probably boxing. Now, it’s the most important day of the year.”

Steeg is talking in terms of television, but the scope is bigger than that. The NFL and television have a symbiotic relationship. The league has given TV its most valuable programming, and TV has been like sort of like the NFL’s sherpa, leading it into a monolith that takes in more revenue than most countries.

In a lot of ways, the NFL’s popularity was dumb luck. The sport is a dream match for television in ways that other sports just can’t match. The layout of the field and action fit the screen, the violence plays well on camera, and it’s not a coincidence that the sport truly took off with instant replay — a terrific way to fill football’s breaks between plays.

“Without the camera, football would belong to the universities and the historians. With it, the game has become the most dependable branch of show business.”

Time Magazine published those words — in 1973. They hold just as true today. Just look at how leagues make their money. More than half of the NFL’s revenue comes from national TV contracts, compared to a third or less for baseball and basketball.

TV has always been powerful, dating back to the first Super Bowl, when they held two second-half kickoffs because NBC was airing a commercial during the first one. Seriously. That actually happened.

“The relationship is enormously important,” says Ed Bark, a former longtime TV critic for the Dallas Morning News. “Without television, people might still go to the games, but the attention paid to the NFL would be minimal. TV contracts make all sports leagues legitimate, and football far more so than most.”

That relationship is binding. Particularly in recent years, football and television have lived an existence of co-dependence. Thirty-second ads for Sunday’s game are going for $5 million. Corporations have done the math and calculated that 120 million people will need to watch for ads to maintain their value from last year. You will notice all the spots are sold.

TV networks need the NFL, too. Fox built much of its ascension on airing NFL games. In television circles, it is often said that a network isn’t a network if it doesn’t have the NFL. Beyond the huge audiences — regular-season games regularly outdraw playoff baseball, and most primetime programming unlucky enough to be pitted against it — the NFL allows networks to promote its best shows to new audiences.

When CBS lost the NFL for a few years in the 1990s, the effects were felt throughout the network. At a party celebrating the league coming back, Bark remembers then-CBS president Les Moonves saying the network had “reclaimed its manhood.”

The Super Bowl is like the next level of this. For reasons both in and out of networks’ control, the Super Bowl is generally viewed as the first sports event that provides a better experience for those watching at home than in person. Some of this is in how the game is broadcast (more on that in a minute), some is with the commercials (self-explanatory), and some because it’s a stand-alone event that lends itself so well to watch parties (who doesn’t like cheese dip?).

You don’t have to know a cornerback from a quarterback to fill out a square, or laugh at (or make fun of) the commercials. Steeg estimates that 80 percent of people who attend a Super Bowl in person do so as a sort of bucket list item, and then go back to watching from home.

“Tens of millions of people watch the Super Bowl who probably haven’t watched football or much football all year long,” says Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports. “It’s a national holiday. I could make the argument that it is among the biggest national holidays of the year, in terms of people getting together, friends getting together, families, it really is a national holiday where everybody puts aside everything they’re doing and focuses on a football game.”

But even if none of the above was true, the Super Bowl would still be among the most influential chunks of programming in more fundamental ways. The Super Bowl did not invent hype, but it did teach others how to do it. A pregame show that started with 30 minutes of breaking down the game has ballooned into hours of programming — longer than the actual game — and was once broadcast from a moving yacht.

The game has always been something like a lab for exploration and experimentation, too, with technological advances that quickly spread to other broadcasts. The first game was broadcast with, basically, one camera and an announcer doing what amounted to a radio play-by-play. Along the way, the Super Bowl popularized the use of remote controlled cameras suspended on wires above the playing field, high-definition broadcasts, and broader ways to promote across platforms.

In the 1990s, NBC started integrating the Super Bowl into its regular programming, bringing us the age of late night shows on site and sitcoms that include references to the game. The idea is to reach the dwindling number of people who might otherwise not be interested in the game.

On Sunday, CBS will use 70 cameras, including some attached to the pylons. The network is also using what it calls EyeVision 360, a technology that uses 36 cameras struck around the upper deck of the stadium that can freeze a moment and swing around the play to show another angle.

“We’re getting pretty close to the limit in respect to the amount of cameras we can have,” McManus says. “It’s getting to the point now where it’s tough to imagine too much more you can do with respect to the coverage.”

McManus is the expert here, so maybe we should defer to him, but the real power of the Super Bowl is that it is effectively in a five-decade growth with no real signs of problems. The audience increases every year, which is unheard of after so many years.

You can make the case that football’s bubble will eventually pop. Head injuries. Overexposure. The sport is terrific, but the league is often arrogant, unnecessarily greedy, and hard to love.

But those things have been true for years. Meanwhile, the league is preparing the country’s most important and influential day of television. Here’s betting you’ll be watching.