When sports television executives dream, they dream of what we saw Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium: With under two minutes remaining in Super Bowl XLV, the game's result remained in doubt. The ratings for the Packers' win over the Steelers are going to be monstrous, but how was the Fox broadcast for viewers? It's time to hand out grades.
Let's concede that it's impossible to construct a show that satisfies both the hardcore football fan and the 50 million additional fans stopping by for a once-a-year-visit.
So, first the good news:
Fox did well with the traditional football stuff. Producer Scott Ackerson decided to bring in former Cowboys, Packers and Steelers for sit-downs on a set outside the stadium and the conversation was stimulating for the most part. Asked about Vince Lombardi by host Curt Menefee, Packers Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr quipped, "He literally had his life prioritized. It was God, family and others -- and we were the others." The roundtable of Cowboys featured a lot of love between Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson, but was ultimately watchable.
Analyst Howie Long conducted a solid interview with Packers veterans Chad Clifton, Donald Driver and Charles Woodson, and gave viewers a nice note at the end when he reported that the relationship between Woodson and coach Mike McCarthy had been fractured at the start. Analyst Michael Strahan's interview with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin revealed a side of Tomlin we don't often see (The Pittsburgh coach admitted he loves the film "Rudy.")
Naturally, officiating analyst Mike Pereira brought substance for his lone segment. He discussed how game officials will discuss trick plays with the coaches prior to the game and the pressure that comes with the Super Bowl gig. Said Pereira: "They will have to make over 100 decisions today, whether it's a foul that is called or not called, a progress spot, or a catch or no catch, they will have a huge impact."
The interview between President Barack Obama and Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly was interesting television, if only to see Obama combat O'Reilly's jarring interviewing style. (Here's hoping Menefee got a bonus for repeatedly hyping that the interview was the one "America has been waiting for.") Asked O'Reilly, "Are you actually going to watch the game? Are you going to sit down and you are going to watch? Do you know football, you know like blitzes and coverages?"
Responded Obama: "I know football, man."
Fox's tradition of getting famous NFL personalities to read the Declaration of Independence has always produced interesting video, and Starr, Tim Brown, Drew Brees, Jim Plunkett, Jerry Rice, DeMarcus Ware, and Hines Ward, among others, did nicely. Actor Michael Douglas did a classy voiceover to the intro of the game broadcast.
But there was also plenty of nonsense, and too much of it.
The pregame lacked any news judgment. It took only 11 minutes into the show for Fox to mention the historically bad weather that hit Dallas this week. That was good. What wasn't good was that the segment lasted a minute, and was treated as an afterthought. Nor did viewers get updates on a story that developed Sunday involving four of the 10 gates at Cowboys Stadium not opening due to concerns about the ice and snow from the roof.
Shortly before 2:30 p.m. the show addressed the upcoming labor dispute and cited a provocative quote ("We are at war") from DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the National Football League Players Association. But Fox did not cite where that provocative quote came from: The New York Times. The roundtable discussion with NFL insider Jay Glazer, Long, and business reporter Rick Horrow shed little new on the subject.
It took Fox until 5:14 p.m. to report on one of the major stories of the Super Bowl, the ticket seating fiasco that saw 400 fans left without seats after multiple sections in Cowboys Stadium were not completed in time. Remarkably, Fox downplayed the news by giving it less than a minute. Though the NFL came out with multiple statements afterward, Fox never updated its audience, and never did any original reporting on the story. Beyond weak.
The backstory for how Terry Bradshaw's interview with Ben Roethlisberger came together turned out to be more compelling than the interview itself. Much of what Roethlisberger said pertained to subjects previously covered by the press, and there was too little discussion on-camera about Bradshaw's very public criticism. If you are going to make the feature about the two men, we needed more about why the two men had been in conflict.
The celebrity red carpet segment hosted by Maria Menuous and Strahan produced the kind of awkward, train wreck television that we've come to expect when Fox heads down this sycophantic path. In a piece released Sunday night, the New York Times called the pregame show the "Worst Damn Four-and-a-Half-Hour Super Bowl Show Ever." We won't go that far but this was not Fox's finest hour.
Or four hours, for that matter.
Pregame grade: C
SI.com asked game director Rich Russo early last week what he considered to be a successful Super Bowl broadcast. "Success means that we have everything covered properly," Russo said. "We have more equipment than usual but I want to make sure we capture all the right reactions and have all the definitive replays covered. I want the pace of the game to flow the way we normally do."
Under those guidelines, the game broadcast was a success. Before the Steelers' first offense play, game announcer Joe Buck smartly noted that it was the sixth different offensive line combination for Pittsburgh, and the first NFL start at center for Doug Legursky (the backup to starter Maurkice Pouncey). The announcer would be on his A-game for the evening.
There were those on Twitter who complained about a lack of energy from Buck but he was particularly good on touchdown calls. He came alive with energy on the opening Green Bay touchdown with a sparse call ("Rodgers! Jordy Nelson! Touchdown! Green Bay!") before wisely shutting up for 20 seconds. Buck also had a nice call on Pittsburgh's final touchdown ("Blitz again. Throwing for Wallace. What a throw. Touchdown, Pittsburgh!")
Later in the quarter, Russo and executive producer Richie Zyontz caught actress Cameron Diaz feeding Alex Rodriguez popcorn, prompting Buck to crack, "I'm sure Alex is thrilled that we put the camera on him at that point, being fed popcorn." That's an honest moment and justified Fox's usual obsession with crowd shots.
On Green Bay's second touchdown, Fox's cameras were all over Packers safety Nick Collins, producing a great angle of a joyful Collins sprinting to the back of the end zone in celebration. Buck was also ahead of the play (probably with the help of Pereira, who stood behind them for the game) by calling the penalty for excessive celebration before the officials announced it. Game analyst Troy Aikman did a nice job there, too, immediately noting the pocket pressure on Roethlisberger by Packers defensive tackle Howard Green. Buck then followed Aikman by telling viewers that Green had been picked up at the end of October by Green Bay. Great stuff all around.
Fox's production also soared with a fourth replay showing Steelers safety Ryan Clark just missing a second-quarter touchdown catch by Greg Jennings. Russo then cut quickly to Steelers defensive tackle Casey Hampton, angrily watching the game get away.
As expected, Fox's game announcers did not touch labor strife, and barely examined the offseason allegations of sexual assault against Roethlisberger. Aikman is a solid X's and O's analyst but he is not Cris Collinsworth, who is willing to wade into topics that ruffle the league. The strongest take Aikman had during the game was calling Pouncey "the best rookie offensive lineman I've ever seen." We also won't blame Aikman or Buck for the strange shot of the two from the booth in the second quarter, an image which came across like the transporter room of the USS Enterprise. (Honestly, there's really no need to show the announcers on camera during the game. We know they are there.)
Perhaps Fox's best moment came early in the fourth quarter with footage of Packers linebackers coach Kevin Greene repeatedly telling linebacker Clay Matthews, "It is time. It is time." That footage aired right after Matthews and Ryan Pickett forced a Rashard Mendenhall fumble, a play that led to Green Bay's winning score.
Worth noting was the work of Fox's Chris Myers, who was sharp during the game broadcast, especially given injuries to Bryant McFadden and Emmanuel Sanders.
The postgame ceremony was handled well by Bradshaw and particularly good when showing Cowboys legend Roger Staubach walking through a sea of Packers with the Lombardi trophy. Fox had taped both teams posing with the Lombardi Trophy earlier in the week and that served them well as one of the closing pieces.