THR spoke to a slew of VIPs who've worked on the broadcasts as they remember O.J. announcing right before his arrest, the time Eli Manning left Dan Patrick hanging and whom Howard Stern got everyone to boo.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The Super Bowl is the last true network TV blockbuster, and it's bigger than ever. Last year's game on NBC stands as the most watched telecast in U.S. history, with 114.4 million viewers tuning in to the New England Patriots' thrilling victory over the Seattle Seahawks. The big game is why TV and radio networks that carry the NFL collectively pay the league an eye-popping $7 billion a year. It's why pop stars including Katy Perry, Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce jump at the opportunity to perform — gratis — at halftime. And it's why rates for Super Bowl TV ads — now selling for $5 million per 30-second spot — have steadily climbed (between 2005 and 2014, the price increased 75 percent and generated $2.19 billion). Of course, it wasn't always this way. The first game in 1967 wasn't even called the Super Bowl; it was the clunky AFL-NFL World Championship Game. Halftime was mainly two college marching bands. Weirdest of all, CBS and NBC aired the game. As CBS prepares for Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7, producers, directors, execs, commentators and ad men recall the pressure, controversies (Janet Jackson) and larger-than-life personalities (O.J. Simpson, Joe Namath, John Madden) of a half-century of title games.
"To the NFL, this play never existed."
The first Super Bowl at the Los Angeles Coliseum — the past and future (temporary) home of the Los Angeles Rams — might look quaint compared with what the game has become, but one critical decision by the referees made clear, from the outset, that this was a made-for-television event.
JIM NANTZ play-by-play man, CBS Sports
At Super Bowl I [between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs], moments after the ball was kicked off to start the second half, the whistles blew and an official ran out on the field, waving his arms, and the Packers were told to rekick. There was no penalty flag, and back in those days, the officials weren't mic'd, so [they] couldn't explain why they were rekicking. It turns out NBC was not back from commercial [even though CBS was], so the officials said, "You know what, we're going to redo this." To the NFL, this play never existed. You wonder what would have happened if the kickoff had been returned for a touchdown.
KEITH OLBERMANN Former studio host, NBC, Fox
The first 30 or so, with a couple exceptions, were bad games. The one I always think about was the New York Jets [led by Namath] over the Baltimore Colts [in Super Bowl III]. It wasn't such a great game, but it was such a surprise [the Colts were favored by 17 points]. I was holding my sister, 7 months old at the time, and when the Jets scored the touchdown that put them ahead for good, I dropped her on the floor and she banged her head.
SEAN MCMANUS chairman, CBS Sports
I was a huge Namath fan at the time. My father [legendary sportscaster Jim McKay] thought he was a little bit too rebellious to be a role model for me. But I was his biggest fan. Namath only wore white shoes. And I actually painted my football cleats white so that I could be like Joe Namath. I was watching the game with my father. And when the Jets won, I said, "See, he guaranteed a victory, and he got one!" And my father begrudgingly acknowledged that Namath was a pretty good guy for me to be following.
Yepremian proved he was no passer in 1973. (FOCUS ON SPORT/GETTY IMAGES.)
BOB COSTAS studio host, NBC
The Miami Dolphins were finishing off a perfect season [with Super Bowl VII in 1973], and it would have been pretty close to poetic if Garo Yepremian kicked the last field goal, because it would have made the score 17-0 and they would have completed a 17-0 season with a 17-0 Super Bowl win [against the Washington Redskins]. But the kick was blocked, and the ball ended up in his hands. He was from Cyprus and really wasn't a football player — he was a soccer player who could kick. And so he starts running and now he's going to throw a pass and the ball slips out of his hand and pops up in the air; it looked like your Aunt Matilda threw it. It got intercepted by Mike Bass, who ran it back for a touchdown. [Dolphins coach] Don Shula was apoplectic. But they won the game anyway.
MIKE ARNOLD lead NFL game director, CBS Sports
I was a broadcast associate in 1982 at Super Bowl XVI. I was just starting out, I was 25, and I was in charge of all the graphics that go on the screen. Our lead analyst was John Madden, who used to have an expression: "Let's just get your shorts on straight." Well, the electronic graphics machines went down a half-hour to air, and we lost 80 percent of our information. So with five minutes to air we were scrambling just to rework the starting lineups.
STEVE HIRDT director of information, Monday Night Football; vp, Elias Sports Bureau
It was 1985, [Super Bowl XIX], and O.J. Simpson was paired [as a pre- and postgame analyst] with Tom Landry, who was then the coach of the Cowboys and a very quiet guy, not the type you'd figure would come on TV and do commentary. So Simpson and Landry were kind of an odd couple pairing. And I do remember Simpson predicted that the star of the game would be a 49ers running back named Roger Craig. And Craig did score three touchdowns in the game.
"McMahon had mooned all of the reporters."
From Apple's landmark 1984 George Orwell commercial (directed by Ridley Scott) to the Chicago Bears' "Super Bowl Shuffle" music video in 1986 to Whitney Houston's wartime rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in 1991, the Super Bowl was beginning to achieve crossover appeal.
MICHAEL KADIN chief creative officer, Pitch
The Apple commercial was like the Citizen Kane of advertising. The importance of that spot and what it did in elevating how you think of a commercial, what its role can be, how disposable these things are after 30 seconds or 60 seconds. … It changed the perception of what we do.
HANNAH STORM studio host, ESPN
I was a sportscaster and a DJ at 97 Rock in Houston. I really wanted to cover the  Super Bowl. The Chicago Bears were this huge crossover team. That was the year of the "Super Bowl Shuffle" and [defensive lineman] William "The Refrigerator" Perry, [coach] Mike Ditka and [quarterback] Jim McMahon. So I basically scammed this assignment. I had no access. No credentials. But there was so much to talk about. McMahon had mooned all of the reporters. Everybody was so fascinated by this team and this renegade guy who never took his sunglasses off. [Two days later] I'm flying home to Houston, which is such a big NASA community, and the Space Shuttle [Challenger] blew up. I remember walking through the airport in utter disbelief. It was just gut-wrenching.
Houston belted out an emotional rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the 1991 contest. (GEORGE ROSE/GETTY IMAGES)
COSTAS It was January 1989, [Super Bowl XXIII], Cincinnati is playing San Francisco in Miami. They hadn't yet arrived at the Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Katy Perry place [for halftime entertainment]. They weren't that far removed from the Up With People days. So now this halftime features a magician named Elvis Presto [who performed what was billed as the biggest 3D card trick ever]. And you could get these 3D glasses at retail outlets. And so I guess they envisioned tens of millions of Americans sitting at home, wearing these 3D glasses, because it was only with the glasses that you could get the full effect of Elvis Presto's halftime show. So it fell to me to explain this revolutionary idea to the American public.
AL MICHAELS play-by-play man, NBC Sports
We did Super Bowl XXV in Tampa [in 1991], which was the Giants and the Bills, the game that ended on Scott Norwood's missed 47-yard field goal. We had invaded Iraq in [Operation] Desert Storm. So there was a tremendously heightened sense of security in this country. It was the first time I could remember driving up to a stadium that had concrete barriers in front of it. We were not allowed to fly a blimp. So we had to position cameras [on the roof] of a nearby hotel that gave us a fixed shot of the stadium. And then the night before the game, [then-president of ABC Sports] Dennis Swanson comes to us and says, "The SWAT unit from Tampa wants to meet with you guys." And they are sitting there telling us what we should do if we are taken hostage. And it's like, "Let me get this straight: Terrorists are going to come into the broadcast booth and take the announcers hostage? OK, yeah." I'm sitting there with Dan Dierdorf and Frank Gifford and we're listening to this. We walked out of the room. I said, "Frank, you know what this is about? All these guys just want a way to get into the game for free." And he said, "One thousand percent."
HIRDT I've seen every Super Bowl. In 1991, we had just gotten into a war. Whitney Houston did "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the game. As someone who has seen thousands of renditions of that song, I would still put that at No. 1 on the all-time list, both for the way she sang it and for the ulterior meaning of the song at that point.
“We’re not here to start no trouble, we’re just here to do the Super Bowl Shuffle,” the Bears sang in 1985. (PAUL NATKIN/GETTY IMAGES)
"No one was permitted to make eye contact with him."
As the Super Bowl continued to grow in popularity, the NFL and the networks realized they needed to make halftime a priority. In 1993, the league recruited Michael Jackson to perform.
COSTAS Jackson [at Super Bowl XXVII] was a turning point. It was a far cry from Up With People and The New Christy Minstrels. No one was permitted to make eye contact [with Jackson]. The NFL was concerned about his incessant crotch-grabbing. The irony is that you now can't keep track of how many players grab their crotches after a touchdown or a sack or whatever. Charming.
LESLEY VISSER reporter, CBS Sports
It was 1995. I was with Monday Night Football, and ABC had the Super Bowl. I got a call from [ad agency] McCann-Erickson. And the guy said, "Lesley, would you like to be in a Super Bowl commercial for McDonald's with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird?" And I said, "Are you kidding? I'll pay you!" So my agent called me and was furious. "You just cost yourself $150,000!" Anyway, Michael and Larry were playing H.O.R.S.E. And it was like, "Through the tunnel, off Lesley Visser's head, nothing but net." But they had to keep doing it, bouncing it off my head. Bird kept saying, "Off Lesley Vissah's head." They'd say, "No! Do it again and pronounce her name [correctly]." And I had a migraine by the time we were done.
KATHIE LEE GIFFORD co-host, Today
I got a beautiful letter from [NFL commissioner] Paul Tagliabue asking me if I would sing the national anthem at the 1995 Super Bowl. I couldn't possibly say no. Frank [Gifford, her husband] and the Monday Night Football guys were the broadcast team. My husband says, "And now to honor our country with the national anthem is Warner Bros. recording artist and my wife …" And I thought, "No! Why are you saying that?!" It's like I slept with him to get the job! So I was angry with Frank. And all of the sudden I hear in the background people booing me. It turned out Howard Stern had told his listeners, when she's introduced, boo her. The fact that Howard and I are friends now after 30 years of him bashing me — now he thinks I walk on water — is sort of a modern-day miracle.
Led by Namath, the Jets became the first AFL team to win the Super Bowl. (AP PHOTO)
BILL COWHER studio analyst, CBS Sports; former Steelers coach
The Steelers were going against the Cowboys in 1996 [in Super Bowl XXX], Troy Aikman and Mike [Irvin, the Cowboys quarterback and star wide receiver, respectively] were coming to practice in limos, and we were taking a yellow bus. It was the blue-collar team against the Hollywood fashion guys.
"O.J. Simpson was the visual representation of the National Football League."
After Simpson retired as one of the game's greatest running backs, he became an NFL analyst, Hertz car rental pitchman and actor. The final Super Bowl he worked was the 1994 matchup between the Cowboys and Bills, his former team.
JIM LAMPLEY HBO Boxing play-by-play man; former NBC Super Bowl studio host
A lot of people forget a lot of things about O.J. Simpson. He was not just a broadcaster with some cachet. He was much bigger than that as an actor. He was one of the most visible advertising icons in the country. He was omnipresent. He was the visual representation of the National Football League. He was a unique football personality. When he was on the telecast [of Super Bowl XXVIII] in January 1994 for NBC, that game was in Atlanta, and those who worked only the game broadcast were able to catch planes out of the Atlanta airport immediately following the game. But those of us who were on the postgame show wound up staying in Atlanta overnight. A bunch of us gathered in the hotel bar at [the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead] at the end of the evening, and eventually [Simpson's ex-wife] Nicole was there. And Nicole wanted to go dancing. So six of us went out in a rented car. O.J. was driving, Nicole sitting in the middle of a bench front seat. I was sitting next to her. [Simpson's friends] Ron and Cora Fishman were in the backseat. Bobby Chandler also was in the backseat; he was a teammate of O.J.'s with the Buffalo Bills. We never did find a place to dance that evening. We just rode around in the car. And that was the last time I saw O.J. before the murders. One year later, of the six people who had been in that car, O.J. was on trial, Ron and Cora had both been called to testify in the trial, Bobby was dead of cancer, and Nicole was dead. I always think to myself that I was the only person in the car who escaped unscathed from the karma of that situation.
Simpson (KIRBY LEE/WIREIMAGE)
"Justin Timberlake pulled off Janet Jackson's bra."
The "wardrobe malfunction" during CBS' broadcast of Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 would launch YouTube and a crackdown on indecency on TV, not to mention a $550,000 fine from the FCC that would wend its way through the courts for nearly a decade before finally being overturned in 2011.
STORM I was hosting the [CBS News morning program] The Early Show, so I was on the sideline. When you watched the halftime show in person, you didn't notice the "wardrobe malfunction." That was something that people saw on television. But if you were there, you were thinking, "Wow, what a great performance." And so the next thing I know, I see this absolute rush of people from the pressroom who had seen it on TV, just this huge sea of reporters going toward Justin Timberlake. And I'm like, "Why are all these people talking to Justin Timberlake?"
MCMANUS I actually didn't see it live because I was walking from our office trailer back into the production truck. As I was heading up the steps to the truck, one of our technicians said, "Did you see what happened in the halftime show? Justin Timberlake pulled off Janet Jackson's bra." And I thought, "Oh my God, that can't be good." About four minutes later we had the second-half kickoff. None of us in the truck realized the impact of what had happened. But I started getting calls from Gil Schwartz and LeslieAnne Wade, our publicists, saying that this is starting to blow up. This is before the days of social media. There was no Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, so it developed much more slowly than it would have today. Now, it would've been an instantaneous event that would have blown up the Internet.
Viewership increased when Jackson took the stage in 1993 at the Rose Bowl. (STEVE GRANITZ/WIREIMAGE)
VISSER I can remember being in the trailer at halftime, and I just remember the mania. Was it intentional? Was it an accident?
MICHAEL POWELL president, NCTA; former FCC chairman
"Wardrobe malfunction" is a funny pop culture reference now. At the time, it was taken enormously seriously. I sat through the longest congressional hearings of my career — nine hours — on this subject. There was an effort to re-establish firmer television standards. And it was Republicans and Democrats alike. It was not the right wing; it was not the Christian conservatives. It was America. My belief — and our investigation led me to be pretty convinced — is that it was all very calculated. He was as much a part of it as she was. There were a lot of people [in Congress] who wanted the law to go after him and her personally. I was vehemently opposed to that. The idea of going after artists offended me.
HIRDT In Super Bowl XLIII [in 2009] between Pittsburgh and Arizona, going into halftime it looked like the Cardinals were going to score a touchdown. Kurt Warner made a very short pass. [Steelers linebacker] James Harrison intercepted it on the goal line with seconds left. And he started what sort of looked like the O.J. slow-speed chase down the sidelines. It was like it was unfolding in slow motion with the Cardinals grabbing at him. The clock ran out as he was running. And he finally staggered across the goal line for a 100-yard interception return. To me that was the most memorable play in Super Bowl history.
MICHELE TAFOYA sideline reporter, NBC Sports
I happened to be in the tunnel before halftime [of Super Bowl XLIX in 2015]. I was waiting to talk with [New England Patriots head coach] Bill Belichick. And Katy Perry came out of her dressing room and was getting ready to take the stage. So she's got one of her perfect ponytails in and there's this guy walking behind her step for step, and he's got the comb under her ponytail. And I'm watching this and thinking, "Right now for this guy, this is the most important thing he has to do in life is make sure that ponytail stays perfect until she gets out there on that stage and does her tiger or lion or whatever the heck she was roaring on."
Powell says the Jackson-Timberlake malfunction was “very calculated.” (FRANK MICELOTTA/GETTY IMAGES)
Harrison’s spectacular interception return in 2009 sent the Steelers into halftime with momentum. (AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES)
"The Super Bowl is the biggest event in all of television, and so you deal with a lot of nonsports issues."
Anything can go wrong, including the blackout that caused a 30-minute stoppage of play during Super Bowl XLVII in 2013.
DAN PATRICK studio analyst, NBC Sports
I have to hand out the MVP trophy, which [comes with] a car. Eli Manning is the MVP [of Super Bowl XLVI in 2012]. I congratulate him, then I say, "And you've won this black on black Corvette, it's beautiful!" So I'm reading this and I have the keys with me. I turn around and Eli is gone. I can't find him. I'm yelling in front of a hundred million people, "Eli! Eli!" And then I see him; he's going down the steps. I realized later he had a deal with another car company and didn't want to be seen with a Corvette.
MCMANUS The Super Bowl is the biggest event in all of television, and so you deal with a lot of nonsports issues. The first reaction [when the lights went out at the New Orleans Superdome during the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVII] was fear that we had lost power in our truck and that the game was still being played and we wouldn't be able to cover it. That was the real nightmare scenario. We spent the next seven to 10 minutes just trying to get communications up with our reporters on the field, up in the booth and with our studio team. Jim Nantz was trying to call us on his cellphone. It was a real feeling of helplessness. In retrospect, I would've preferred to focus more on the story [of the blackout]. But we literally couldn't talk to anybody on the crew, including our reporters and announcers.
The 49ers were left in the dark in 2013. (DILIP VISHWANAT/GETTY)
COSTAS It was kind of awkward [his Super Bowl XLIX pregame interview with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady]. The [2015 Deflategate] investigation was underway, but we didn't have the results of that investigation. He stood suspected but not accused at that point. And so I phrased the questions accordingly and basically gave him three or four opportunities to flatly say what I think he should have said, which is, "Look, I prefer the ball on the lower end of permissible inflation and I have always communicated that to the equipment guys. If because of error or overzealousness on their part they went beneath that, I take responsibility for it in a general sense because I'm the quarterback of the team. But I didn't have anything to do with it, and I didn't order them to do it." If he said that, that's it. But he didn't.
"You've got the feeling that Martians and people living on Venus are tuning in because this is the Super Bowl."
The game finally snapped the last standing scripted TV record in 2010 when Super Bowl XLIV raked in more than 106 million viewers to surpass the 1983 finale of M*A*S*H (105.9 million viewers). And some commercials, like the 2011 ad in which a kid Darth Vader uses the Force to start a Volkswagen, still resonate with viewers.
Max Page as the pint-sized Darth Vader. (VOLKSWAGEN)
KADIN I always say I'm glad that we did the [Volkswagen ad] before [Disney bought Lucasfilm]. It just jumped off the page. Volkswagen saw it: Done. We presented it to the Star Wars people: Done. It was 100 percent friction-free. That's extremely [unusual].
OLBERMANN You have to watch it live. It's not Downton Abbey. It's live sports. The Super Bowl [ratings] keep going up, which means they're doing it right. There are generations of football fans for whom the city identification is meaningless. They're all national teams because of something that my first TV boss [CBS Sports chief] Bill MacPhail and [longtime NFL commissioner] Pete Rozelle dreamed up in the '50s — this dual telecast system where you see your team in your area and the national game of the week.
FRED GAUDELLI Coordinating producer, NBC's Sunday Night Football
Next to the birth of my daughter, it's the most exhilarating thing I've done. That moment when you're about to start the show, I mean, you feel it. You feel the 100 million people. You feel the gravity. Look, it's only a football game. But it's not. It's an American holiday. Everybody is watching your work. And over 50 Super Bowls, there's probably 15 producers, probably 15 directors. So you're experiencing an opportunity that few people have had. I always have a lot of gratitude on that day.
GREG GUMBEL play-by-play man, CBS Sports
You've got the feeling that Martians and people on Venus are tuning in because it's the Super Bowl. It is honestly the day that people who don't care a thing about football are holding parties. And a lot of them are just watching the commercials. Even if you're not a football fan, you're supposed to watch it because that's what everyone will be talking about the next day.