Super Bowl: Good News and Bad News

It’s been two years since Janet Jackson’s so-called "Wardrobe Malfunction" at the Super Bowl shamed the NFL and network TV (for a moment or two) into thinking through how they would deal with a large segment of America objecting to immorality coming into their homes from the tube.

The Super Bowl has been the most-watched TV event of the year, every year, since 1995; Nielsen reported that this year’s game was the most-watched by percentage of TV-watching homes (41.6 percent) since 2000. In many homes, the whole family is in front of the set, and in the home cities of the contending teams, it’s even bigger. In Pittsburgh, even the family dog was probably propped in front of the set wearing his Jerome Bettis jersey.

Since the raunchy Janet Jackson spectacle, the NFL has turned from the young and irresponsible to the old living monuments of rock at the Super Bowl halftime show, first Paul McCartney, and now the Rolling Stones, prompting half-time debate about whether these retirement-age rockers can still relive the glory days, or whether we’re all just ready to grade them on a curve. Even so, ABC deserves credit for instituting a five-second delay — common for "Monday Night Football," but not the Big Game — to make sure the year’s largest television audience, full of children, didn’t get any unwelcome surprises.

The delay does nothing to impair the excitement of the game broadcast, as it already takes several seconds for the broadcast signal to beam from the football field to living rooms across the country. But it does prevent profanity from players or coaches or rock stars from going out to the year’s biggest audience. (It doesn’t prevent cursing at the referees at home. Lack of restraint on that front was understandable coming from the Seattle fans.)

But the five-second delay, as admirable as this expression of corporate responsibility was, didn’t prevent other offenses to family viewing. For the last few years, movie studios have been playing a sly game at the Super Bowl. When the Federal Trade Commission released a study in 2000 proving that movie producers were inappropriately promoting adult movies on television shows with heavy concentrations of children watching, the Motion Picture Association of America responded by announcing guidelines asking the movie studios to "further the goal of not inappropriately specifically targeting children in its advertising of films rated R for violence." Yet during the Super Bowl, they push hyper-violent movies. For example, "Poseidon" featured a ship being overturned by a tidal wave, people falling to their deaths, and massive explosions. How did they get around their own guidelines? These movie trailers are now sometimes aired before the movie is formally rated.

Even the ads for rated films could be shocking to children. TV critic Tom Shales of The Washington Post protested that the trailer for "V for Vendetta" (rated R) offered "heaps of graphic mayhem including the destruction of both Houses of Parliament and London’s iconic Big Ben via terrorist bombs." Shales felt the promo for the upcoming PG-13 film "Mission Impossible 3" was "similarly wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with rabid destruction."

The goodwill ABC was building with its delayed-broadcast decision was also undermined by its racy promos for upcoming ABC shows. The silliest one was a saucy commercial for their fairly clean family-hour show "Dancing With the Stars," showing the females who wear the skimpiest dresses and running the words "Wardrobe Malfunction? You Wish!" The saddest was ABC’s plug for scuzzy "Desperate Housewives," with almost 80-year-old pornographer Hugh Hefner declaring his rooting interest in the show’s most sexually manipulative character, Edie, since she’s "my kind of woman."

ABC then ruined the goodwill with its raunchy opening to "Grey’s Anatomy" aired right after the Super Bowl. Families were jarred from victory celebrations to a lesbian shower scene with three of the show’s young female characters rubbing each other with a sponge and giggling. This scene turned out to be an erotic dream by one of the male doctor characters on the show.

It was the third-most-watched piece of post-Super Bowl programming in nearly 20 years. With about 38.1 million viewers, it ranked only behind the debut of "Survivor 2" in 2001 and a special episode of "Friends" in 1996. There’s no doubt some suit at ABC thinks it’s not just the Super Bowl lead-in, but the lesbian come-on that brought those Nielsen numbers.

In summation, if you watched the game, paid little attention to the commercials, and left the room when the game ended, it was a pretty decent night on ABC. But obviously, as its promos and opening scenes demonstrate, ABC (and Hollywood) still sees titillation as the best formula for getting and holding an audience.