What do the following have in common: John Wayne, Johnny Bench, the Marquis Chimps, Henny Youngman, Stiller and Meara, Joe Frazier, Rowan and Martin, two-thirds of Charlie's Angels, Ken Norton, Elliott Gould, Andy Williams, Sammy Davis Jr., Sha Na Na, Angie Dickinson, Xavier Cugat's last two wives and children representing 100 nations of the world. Super Bowl XI, of course.
Every last one of them appeared on either the televised Super Bowl halftime program or on one of the two Saturday night variety shows that were spin-offs of the Raiders vs. the Vikings. They helped prove that what should be a marvelous football game has become what television has always hoped it would be—the electronic media monster of this and, presumably, every season to come. And lest that huge list of non-football people isn't evidence enough, consider the scene outside the Rose Bowl late last week. So many tractors, trailers, mobile homes, tape machines, microphones, cranes and lights were there, it looked as if CBS and NBC had received word that Pasadena had been selected as the starting place for World War III. Most of the equipment was not brought in to telecast the game. It was there to cover the hoopla that is threatening to overwhelm the events on the field.
The Super Bowl should be the ultimate players' game. Instead, TV, as it usually does, has moved the hashmarks. Television apparently doesn't believe that the game can sustain interest on its own merits. Before last year's Super Bowl, which was telecast by CBS from the Orange Bowl, a variety show emanating from Miami got decent ratings. This year viewers were given a choice of two such programs, not counting the one at halftime, during which fans in the Rose Bowl were equipped with colored cards so they could be show-biz folk, too, and entertain all those unfortunate enough not to be in Pasadena. That NBC provided two hours of Super Bowl eve broadcasting was hardly surprising, because that network did the game this year. But why would CBS do a 1½-hour show to help hype its rival's ratings the next day? That's easy—CBS gets the game in 1978, and legends must be perpetuated.
The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of the Super Bowl was taped in advance by NBC, while CBS' Super Night at the Super Bowl was shown live from in front of the Rose Bowl. Each had a referee skit and someone imitating Howard Cosell. People tried to explain football on both shows, and too many jokes about the Los Angeles Rams were told on both networks.
For all their triteness, the dreariest thing about the variety shows is that they seem likely to spawn a lot of offspring. ABC already does a program from Louisville the night before the Kentucky Derby, and a show preceding next summer's U.S. Open tennis tournament at Forest Hills is in the works. How far in the future can one (if not seven) pre-World Series program be? The variety shows feed off an event that's in the news the way pilot fish use sharks. That would be harmless enough, except for the real danger to sports they present. Television has always had trouble telling the difference between entertainment, which pro football and other sports most certainly are, and show biz, which they are not. By making the Super Bowl merely part of a show-biz package, by surrounding it with the sort of second-rate shows that were presented last week, TV is threatening to diminish the value of the game. And it threatens to denigrate the athletes' skills, which is the chief reason spectators pay to watch pro sports.
Television's attitude is: if Fred Biletnikoff becomes the hero of the Super Bowl and Dorothy Hamill stars in the Olympics, let's do "specials" with them. Who cares if the shows are rotten or if the athletes appear wooden and embarrassed? Turn 'em all into the Marquis Chimps.
The differences between Mad, Mad and Super Night were not vast. The latter, however, was unusual in that it was produced outdoors and live by Pierre Cossette on an evening so damp and cold that the actors' breath could be seen. Cossette had to post a $20,000 bond insuring that his sets would be struck and moved out of the area eight hours after the show ended; alas, it was necessary for people to get into the Rose Bowl the next day. There were 16 motor homes, 24 portable dressing rooms, 7.5 miles of cable, plus sets and lights, cranes and booms. "We'll get it out," Cossette said, "or the City of Pasadena will bulldoze it all and bury it in the dump. They say they have a football game to play."
Indeed they did. Experienced Super Bowl watchers know that whichever team is ahead at the half usually wins, and Super XI was no exception. NBC did a fine job on a game that was both one-sided and nearly devoid of spectacular plays. That prevented the network from gaining much advantage from the 14 cameras (eight more than usual) it deployed.
The halftime show, put on by Walt Disney Productions, looked as if it was designed to sell color sets. While viewers got to see the new Mouseketeers, the show-biz part of the proceedings used up so much time that NBC could only rerun one key play of the first half (a blocked punt). Until the fourth period, when the lopsidedness of the game forced them to begin jabbering to fill time, announcers Curt Gowdy and Don Meredith worked well together, just as they had during the Rose Bowl the week before. Yes, the cameras swept the crowd for celebrities, but one gets used to that these days. At times, the shots of Johnny Bench, et al. were actually a relief from watching Minnesota's ineptness.