Super Bowl tones it down
G-rated: Mindful of past fumbles, Fox and advertisers tread carefully.
By Stephen Kiehl Sun Staff
Things you won’t see during today’s Super Bowl broadcast: Mickey Rooney’s bare behind, the Go Daddy girl shaking her bottom and a stagehand opening a beer bottle with Janet Jackson’s breastplate.
Things you will see: Mike Ditka pitching designer countertops, Hammer (formerly known as a rap star) hawking insurance and Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy promoting Pizza Hut.
One year after Janet Jackson’s right breast saw the light of day during the Super Bowl halftime show, setting off a public furor over lewdness and vulgarity on television and earning CBS a $550,000 fine, the producers of this year’s big game are taking no chances. Ads have been well-scrubbed of any possible improprieties, and the halftime show promises to be more stodgy than saucy.
At least four ads have been pulled or rejected by Fox, which is broadcasting the game. And Fox Sports Net has changed the name of The Best Damn Sports Show Period to The Best Darn Super Bowl Road Show Period.
The halftime show, which typically features a young pop tart, will be headlined by Sir Paul McCartney, a man whose wardrobe hasn’t malfunctioned since he got grass stains on his suit in A Hard Day’s Night.
The effort to clean up the telecast has prompted critics – and some advertisers – to accuse Fox and the National Football League of being overly cautious in deciding what is appropriate for the estimated 90 million viewers. Advertisers, paying a record $2.4 million per 30-second spot, say Super Bowl ads are supposed to be daring.
The friction illustrates the challenge faced by Fox and its advertisers: to create a program that entertains the masses without offending a single viewer. Some of the most popular ads from last year’s game – the flatulent horse, the crotch-biting dog – wouldn’t make the cut this year, advertisers say.
“Everybody I talk to, when they watch the Super Bowl, they want to see edgy ads. They’re not looking for Ozzie and Harriet,” said Bob Parsons, chief executive officer of GoDaddy.com, which had one ad accepted and one rejected for this year’s game. “They want to have a good time and they want to laugh, and that’s what the Super Bowl’s all about.”
Go Daddy, a company that registers Web site domain names, produced an ad showing a buxom young woman shaking her rear end before a panel identified as the “Broadcast Censorship Committee.” A tight shot of her chest, the company’s logo emblazoned across it, is also shown.
That ad was rejected by Fox, but another version, shot from a distance, will air during the first quarter. Parsons said neither ad is any racier than some of the on-field images captured by Fox’s cameras during football games. “There is nothing in any of my ads that you won’t see from an NFL cheerleader,” he said.
But, like any good business owner, he is taking full advantage of the controversy. He placed the rejected ad on Go Daddy’s Web site, where it was generating 30,000 daily plays last week, and has written about the experience in his online blog.
Since Janet Jackson’s exposure last year, the Federal Communications Commission has slapped Fox with a $1.2 million fine for Married by America, a reality show that featured men licking whipped cream from strippers’ bodies, and Viacom with a $3.5 million fine for remarks made by Howard Stern and other broadcasters.
And the NFL took flak from viewers for a pre-game spot on Monday Night Football that showed a seemingly nude Nicolette Sheridan jumping into the arms of Terrell Owens of the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I think, clearly, anyone who reads the paper knows that the environment is having an effect on the way all of us do business,” said Lee D’Ermilio, senior vice president for media relations at Fox Sports. “Obviously, the NFL has been affected, advertisers have been affected and broadcasters have been affected.”
This year’s 12-minute halftime show has been carefully examined by the NFL. The league has dropped MTV, which produced last year’s show, in favor of Don Mischer, whose credits include The Kennedy Center Honors and The 100th Anniversary of Carnegie Hall.
Previous shows have featured such provocative stars as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. This year, the 62-year-old McCartney will have the stage to himself.
“He’ll keep his clothes on,” said Charles Coplin, the NFL’s vice president of programming.
Given such assurances, Fox will be airing the game live, without the multisecond delay becoming common in other sports such as NASCAR. A Fox spokesman said the Super Bowl is news, and there is also the problem of trying to decide in a second or two what might be offensive.
After a year of fines, broadcasters say they are still unsure what will offend viewers or the FCC, and that uncertainty factors into what they allow on the air. One viewer complaint to the FCC could lead to an investigation and fines.
“We as a business have to be concerned about folks having an issue and taking it up the ladder,” D’Ermilio said. “The direction [from the FCC] is just very – it’s gray. So we are choosing to err on the side of caution.”
That means viewers won’t be seeing Mickey Rooney’s 84-year-old bare behind. Rooney made an ad for Airborne Health, a cold remedy, that showed him leaving a sauna without a towel on. Fox rejected the ad on the grounds that it showed nudity, but Airborne Health says that’s nothing new for television.
“They’ve had naked rear ends on everything from NYPD Blue to baby commercials,” said Rider McDowell, co-owner of Airborne Inc., based in Carmel, Calif. “This is no more offensive that Dennis Franz’s rear end or a Coppertone commercial.”
McDowell said he has received thousands of calls from people who want to see the ad, from “little old ladies to fraternities.” So he posted it on his Web site, airbornehealth.com.
Anheuser-Busch, the Super Bowl’s largest advertiser with 10 spots, has pulled a Budweiser ad that begins with a scene titled “Backstage Before Halftime 2004.” It shows a stagehand using Janet Jackson’s costume to open a bottle of Bud. He rips off the right breast covering and attempts to reattach it with chewing gum. It falls off again.
Anheuser-Busch decided to pull the ad after consulting with Fox and the NFL.
“It was mutually agreed that it would be better not to televise that ad given that it made light of the shenanigans from last Super Bowl that many people found offensive,” said D’Ermilio of Fox. That hasn’t stopped Busch from placing the ad on – this is getting predictable – its Web site.
The dispute has generated so much discussion that it might be dampening enthusiasm for the game, at least for the ads. A survey of 1,200 people by Baltimore-based Eisner Communications found that 7 percent would watch the Super Bowl for the ads alone, the smallest percentage since 1996.
“There is less of an expectation that people are going to see cutting-edge advertising,” said David Blum, senior vice president at Eisner. He said those who create ads should not bemoan the new restrictions, but rather work harder.
“No longer is lowest common denominator humor – bathroom jokes or sexual innuendo – something you can lean on as a technique,” Blum said.
That’s good news to the Parents Television Council, a conservative organization that monitors television and film for offensive content and urges its members to send complaints to Congress or the FCC. The group is turning its attention to commercials after parents have complained about ads that run during football games.
A particular target is ads for erectile dysfunction drugs. Two such drugs, Cialis and Levitra, advertised during last year’s game, and Cialis at least will be back this year. The parents group takes issue with the graphic descriptions of side effects at the end of the Cialis ad.
“It’s one of those uncomfortable moments parents would rather not have,” said Lara Mahaney, spokeswoman for the Parents Television Council. “I don’t think any normal, sane, unselfish person would say that’s unreasonable.”
Tribune wire services contributed to this article.