Hamming it up at the half

Cablers take the field against Fox

For fans unmoved by the prospect of a Tom Petty Super Bowl halftime show, the cable industry has an answer. Many answers, in fact.

There's grown men stuffing themselves with eggs and ham. There's Deion Sanders skirmishing with his wife over household chores. There's kittens squaring off on a football field.

After five years of letting the Super Bowl halftime show air pretty much uncontested, networks are again taking aim at the extravaganza. Sensing vulnerability in the NFL's decision to cast the musician known for "Free Fallin' " and "American Girl" as its headline entertainment, nets are in a counterprogramming frenzy.

"We see an opportunity at halftime because young viewers may not be into watching a musical performance suited to older guys," Spike TV rep David Schwarz said. "To get the competitive juices flowing, we have a better idea."

Spike's idea is to show a competitive-eating contest featuring the likes of Eater X, Tim "Gravy" Brown" and rising star (in the eating world, anyway) of Joey Chesnut. Spike will telecast an undercard of hard-boiled egg consumption (world record: 65) as well as a ham-eating main event. The net will cut to the competition as soon as the first-half Super Bowl whistle blows on Fox.

Oxygen will premiere the first episode of reality series "Deion & Pilar: Prime Time Love," in which viewers peek into the home life of flamboyant former athlete Deion Sanders more than two months ahead of the series' debut.

Like Spike, the women-themed net will cut in to its regularly scheduled programming at the start of halftime and air the 22-minute show commercial free, in time for viewers to get back to the second half. "We have one of the biggest stars the NFL has ever turned out on our airwaves," Oxygen GM Jason Klarman said. "A lot of people will be interested in both the game and in Deion."

Animal Planet, which for the past few years has aired the Puppy Bowl on Super Bowl Sunday, has begun to take it one step (paw?) further — it's airing its own halftime show, a kitten bowl, during halftime of the Puppy Bowl, roughly timing it to halftime of the bowl featuring humans.

Halftime counterprogramming — which unlike the typical Super Bowl kind assumes and even draws on interest in the game itself — attempts to tap into those who are watching the game but are hungry for something besides the packaged musical performances the NFL stages. It works on a kind of golden-crumbs assumption: When you're starting with a base of more than 90 million viewers, landing even a small number of those viewers will still comprise one of your biggest audiences of the year.

It's an experiment the networks have attempted intermittently but stopped for political reasons in recent years.

In 1992, Fox surprised CBS with a competing "In Living Color" special that garnered more than 20 million viewers, a significant portion of the Super Bowl audience. As recently as 2003, NBC had a rival "Weekend Update" broadcast with Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey that attracted sizable numbers,

But since their gambits, Fox and NBC have acquired a piece of the NFL rights package. Leeching off viewers during the NFL's flagship game doesn't exactly sit well with the league, so the nets stopped. Even ABC, the only Big Four broadcast network not in the Super Bowl rotation, is in business with the NFL via corporate sibling ESPN, so it's sitting out halftime.

With a burst of original programming and a maverick sensibility, though, cable is able to step into the breach — but not without some touchiness.

Oxygen, for instance, is now owned by NBC, which has a lucrative Sunday night deal with the NFL. The presence of Sanders makes it especially sensitive. The personality, who's a producer of his reality show, isn't just a former pro football player — he's an employee of the NFL via his studio gig on the NFL Network.

For his part, an NFL spokesperson downplayed the effect of the competition. "Everyone has the right to counterprogram, but we're confident the majority of viewers will stay tuned to Fox," the rep said, pointing out that younger viewers might be aware of Petty from games like "Guitar Hero." "These shows are more likely a PR gimmick than a revenue-generating opportunity."

The league also points to a traditionally high retention rate for the halftime show; last year, CBS averaged only about a 3% drop-off during its halftime show, which was anchored by Prince.

Still, execs think they can offer something more relatable than the highly skilled game on the field. "We're not trying to upset the NFL; we're just cashing in on an opportunity," Spike's Schwarz said. "For most of us, you can't go out there and play football. But you sure as hell can go and eat a couple dozen eggs and a ham."