OpEd Columns

A Brief History of the Super Bowl Halftime Show (2/24/04)

It’s been almost a month since the television event that traumatized families nationwide.
The fog of disingenuous apologies has cleared. The sagging career of an ‘80s pop star has been revived. The radio talk shows have debated ad nauseum. The conclusion? It was a staged publicity stunt, not a horrific wardrobe malfunction.
All that remains is the six month anniversary footage to be aired this summer when the local TV news runs out of heat wave stories.
But have we truly determined the cultural significance of this year’s Super Bowl halftime debacle? For if we ignore the history behind such an event, aren’t we doomed to repeat it?
Once and for all. How did this happen?
This crumbling of a national fixture. This spit in the face at America’s most over-indulgent TV moment of the year.
Suddenly, in a locker room minute, the crass MTV generation sensually smeared 37 years of traditional cheese and schmaltz into the dance floor prescription turf of Reliant Stadium. Yes, MTV. Famed historians of the National Football League, whose target audience wouldn’t know the difference between Joe Willie and P. Diddy.

How did this happen?
It started with an armada of Abercrombie and Fitch models dirty dancing at the fifty-yard line. It ended with the blasphemous bump and grind of Sir Timberlake and Miss Nasty.
Jaws dropped. Stomachs turned. All at once, FCC president Michael Powell, CBS CEO Les Moonves, and NFL leader Paul Tagliabue, synchronously shouted “I want my Up With People!”
One final breasture, and nearly four decades of fat filled, over stuffed halftime fluff instantly became “the good ‘ole days of family entertainment”,
How did this happen?
It was an evolution similar to many others. Dinosaurs, volcanoes, the human species…and Super Bowl halftime shows. Like most other infamous crimes in America’s past, an actual timeline of significant events paints a clearer picture of how we got to this precarious point in bad television history.
Jan. 15, 1967 The first Super Bowl halftime show features the Univ. of Michigan and Univ. of Arizona marching bands. Both NBC and CBS decide to air the event, splitting the audience, and making it the lowest rated Super Bowl ever. NBC celebrates the 35-year anniversary of the event in 2002 by airing Playboy Playmate Fear Factor during halftime of FOX’s coverage of Super Bowl XXXVI.
Jan.18, 1976 Super Bowl X marks the halftime debut of Up With People. The overly cheery patriots go on to perform in a total of four Super Bowls during the next decade, holding the record for most halftime performances. Tied for second place are Justin Timberlake and The Jacksons (Janet and Michael) with two appearances each.
Jan. 15, 1978 Super Bowl XII in New Orleans. Dallas defeats Denver 27-10. Three days later, eleven-year old Janet Jackson, in her first TV role, stars as Penny Woods in the dyn-o-mite CBS show Good Times.
Jan.25, 1981 Super Bowl XV in New Orleans. Oakland defeats Philadelphia 27-10. Six days later, Justin Timberlake makes his first appearance as a newborn baby in Memphis.
Jan.26, 1992 Super Bowl XXVI. A Winter Olympics theme prevails in Minneapolis as Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano perform at halftime. Somewhere out west, Tonya Harding takes note of the skating/football connection and acts upon it two years later giving CBS the second most watched TV event in history.
Jan. 27, 1993 Super Bowl XXVII begins with the coin toss by soon-to-be gloveless OJ Simpson and features a “Heal The World” halftime performance by one-gloved wonder Michael Jackson accompanied on the field by 3500 local children. Needless to say, an apocryphal moment in Super Bowl entertainment history, akin to the fall of the Roman Empire.
Jan. 28, 2001 Super Bowl XXXV. MTV produces their first halftime spectacular featuring toxic rockers Aerosmith and boy band NSYNC. In a surprise appearance, a buxom Britney Spears pops in to join the sing-a-long. Sync singer Justin Timberlake takes note of Ms. Spears revealing wardrobe and acts upon it three years later giving CBS ownership of yet another unforgettable event in television history.
Feb. 1, 2004 Super Bowl XXXVIII. MTV produces their second halftime show. A buxom Janet Jackson pops out in a surprise duet with now solo stud Justin Timberlake. Halftime sponsor AOL contemplates asking CBS for a refund. Meanwhile, millions of AOL subscribers download photos of the peep show helping to break the all-time internet record for “most searched event over one day”. Pre-game performers Aerosmith are now seen as wholesome family entertainment.

Ted Mandell teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright 2004 Ted Mandell

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