Super Bowl 2013: CBS Sports' Sean McManus on the Blackout and the F-Bomb

Sean McManus - H 2013
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Sean McManus - H 2013

A 34-minute delay, Joe Flacco's cursing caught on camera and Beyonce's halftime extravaganza power 108 million viewers and a lesson in how to manage live TV.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 15, 2013 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

A stadium-wide power outage and an F-bomb heard loud and clear by more than 100 million TV viewers – just another year in the annals of Super Bowl controversies, which include Janet Jackson’s 2004 nipple-flash and last year’s MIA middle finger flip.

CBS still pulled in more than 108 million viewers — TV’s third- biggest audience ever, after last year’s game and the year before — for a Baltimore Ravens-San Francisco 49ers matchup that, before the lights went out, was shaping up to be a Ravens blowout. The 34-minute game stoppage actually might have made a game of it, as the 49ers rallied to score two touchdowns in the second half. “At half time we were concerned that it was going to be a blowout,” admits CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus.

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It was 7:37 p.m. in New Orleans, a few minutes after halftime resumed at Super Bowl XLVII, when 15,000 overhead lighting fixtures and LED screens that ring the stands at the Mercedes Benz Superdome began to flicker into darkness. CBS play-by-play announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms lost their audio. And the remaining working cameras showed bewildered players looking up at darkness. Meanwhile, CBS Sports’ central command truck in the bowels of the 273-foot tall stadium became eerily silent.

“All the monitors started to turn gray,” recalls McManus, who has now presided over five Super Bowls. “We had no communication with anybody. The first communication we got back was with [reporter] Steve Tasker on the sideline. We could actually hear him but he couldn’t hear us so we were trying to communicate with him through our cameraman.”

Of the 62 cameras there to catch every angle of play at the 43rd Super Bowl, CBS was down to three elevated cameras and four and eight ground cameras – and those were working only intermittently. Producers reached Nantz, who was in the broadcast booth high above the field, on his cell phone when the network went to the first commercial break after the blackout.

Asked if he heard from CBS Corp. Leslie Moonves, who was watching the game in the company’s luxury box, McManus replies: “He did not call me. And I think the reason he didn’t call me is he figured we were doing everything we could possibly do."

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It could have been worse. “If it had been the [CBS] compound, it would have been much more worrisome. If we had lost all of our communication and most of our cameras and the game was still being played, that would have been an even bigger problem for CBS,” says McManus.

And another silver lining: The network likely won’t incur an FCC fine for inadvertently broadcasting Joe Flacco saying “f—ing awesome” during the post-game celebration. Last June, the Supreme Court threw out steep fines for "fleeting expletives" at the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards and the 2003 Golden Globes. The FCC, which has a backlog of thousands of indecency complaints, has resisted bringing new fines for such spontaneous curse words during live events — even in post-game interviews. Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown dropped an F-bomb during an interview with NBC’s Pierre McGuire after the Kings clinched their first Stanley Cup victory last June. 

“It’s unfortunate, but in the heat of battle sometimes it happens,” says McManus. “We try to avoid it, but sometimes it happens in live television." (In fact, veteran sports producer Don Ohlmeyer jokes that “in the NFL, mother is only half a word. That was always the cue for the audio man. If he started to hear ‘mother’ he closed the mikes so he didn’t get the rest of it.”)

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The FCC declined comment. Legal experts caution that it’s impossible to predict what the FCC could do in this case. But Paul M. Smith, a partner at the Washington D.C. firm Jenner & Block, who has argued First Amendment cases in front of the Supreme Court, notes that there are a “lot of mitigating factors” surrounding Flacco’s exuberant utterance.

“[CBS] didn’t do anything wrong,” says Smith. “Clearly nobody intended it. He didn’t even know he was on TV. It was a time of unusual excitement. And so hopefully the whole thing will blow over. But there are no guarantees. ”

And despite complaints from the Parents Television Council, the profanity was heard after the 10 p.m. hour on the East Coast, which is outside of so-called family viewing hours. And according to a network source, “there’s been no outrage from our viewers, just a handful of e-mails."

To avoid such slips of the tongue in the future NFL games would have to air on a delay, and that would generate a lot more controversy than a 34-minute power outage.

Email: Marisa.Guthrie; Twitter:@MarisaGuthrie