Behind the Super Bowl: How CBS Plans to Pull Off TV's Biggest Event

Issue 5 FEA Superbowl Illustration - P 2013
Todd Detwiler

Issue 5 FEA Superbowl Illustration - P 2013

America's last truly communal experience only takes 500 employees, 70 cameras and a production budget approaching $3 million to pull off.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The Friday night before the matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome -- New Orleans' massive stadium that seats more than 75,000 fans, who have been known to cause a ruckus that can hit 120 decibels, the equivalent of standing underneath a commercial aircraft as it's about to take off -- will play host to a mere thousand people in the stands, there to witness a quiet scrimmage between two local high school football teams.

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To prepare for this seemingly low-wattage affair, veteran CBS Sports anchor James Brown will go about his normal pregame ritual: a cardio workout to get the adrenaline circulating, inspirational verses from the Bible to focus the mind and gospel music from singer Yolanda Adams in order to be in the proper mood of reverence for an event that is akin to a national religion.

See, what looks to be a lazy Friday in the Big Easy is actually a full-on dress rehearsal for Super Bowl XLVII. Those high school teams will be running some of the same plays the professionals are expected to run Feb. 3 so that Brown -- who in 1973 was cut by the NBA's Atlanta Hawks and vowed never to be caught unprepared again -- and CBS can work out the kinks. "It's important we get everything right," he says.

Yes, the Super Bowl is rehearsed. Of course it is. After all, it's the biggest TV event of the year, routinely watched by more than 100 million people. CBS pays $620 million a year for the rights under its current deal (and will pony up $1.08 billion annually under a new deal that begins with the 2014 season). So the network wants to be certain that everything runs smoothly -- which means, among other things, making sure that an unprecedented 70 cameras are in the right position and that the production crew understands the precise amount of luminescence raining down from the stadium's 15,000 lighting fixtures.

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The network will spend what sources say is $2.5 million to $3 million to produce the big game -- more than double the cost of a regular-season matchup. And CBS is determined this year to get its money's worth from the 47th Super Bowl -- the 18th for the network. The network's broadcast center in New Orleans' Jackson Square will be home to 15 different shows across every division in the company (news, daytime, late night, syndication, cable, radio, online), while freshman drama Elementary will get the coveted postgame slot -- and CBS stars including Elementary's Lucy Liu, How I Met Your Mother's Neil Patrick Harris and Hawaii Five-0's Daniel Dae Kim will be in attendance inside the Superdome. "We've never done anything like this before," says Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports.

The Super Bowl has come a long way since the first one in 1967, which was arranged only 60 days before kickoff, nearly relegated to closed-circuit television and then blacked out in the Los Angeles market, where the game was played. NBC and CBS paid a total of $9.5 million for the first four Super Bowls and, compared to today's game, the production values were out of the Stone Age.

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But then the TV networks went all U.S. vs. USSR with one another. "There was kind of a nuclear war in the '70s and '80s," recalls Don Ohlmeyer, former president of NBC Sports and the first producer of ABC's Monday Night Football. "CBS would use 21 cameras one year, and the next year NBC would use 22, and the next year CBS would use 23. It was like mutually assured destruction; it was just too much equipment."

Then came instant replay, which treated each play as if it were as deserving of scrutiny as the Zapruder film. "A game that was fast and furious and violent was now able to be viewed in beautiful slow motion, where all the details became apparent," says NBC Sunday Night Football producer Fred Gaudelli.

Let's not forget the collage of graphics that adorn the screen. As recently as the 1990s, viewers had to wait until the beginning and end of each quarter for the score to pop up on the TV screen and until the two-minute warning for the game clock. Networks weren't very eager to share technology with one another, either. For example, back in 1998, when Fox asked ESPN to share rights for the now-ubiquitous virtual first-down markers, Gaudelli recalls a colleague saying: "If they want to pay me $1 million to buy out my exclusivity, I'll be happy to sit down and listen. But other than that, the answer is no."

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This year, CBS has continued the Super Bowl's innovative arms race: One year after NBC trotted out four NAC Hi-Motion II ultra-slow-motion cameras, CBS is touting six "HEYEper Zoom" high-frame-rate, 4K replay and zoom camera systems, which CBS' lead director Michael Arnold promises will enhance the experience.

The halftime show, too, has evolved markedly, from Carol Channing, marching bands, salutes to Motown and (we're not kidding) card tricks to chart-topping superstars who jump at the chance to perform a 12-minute set, sans appearance fee, for the monster audience. This year's show will feature Beyonce, fresh from the presidential inauguration's lip sync-gate. The show is produced by the NFL, which took responsibility for it after Justin Timberlake bared Janet Jackson's nipple during the 2004 performance. Along the way, the NFL has encountered some small difficulties -- like in 2007, when Prince refused to sign a contract until the last second because it wasn't his custom to sign contracts -- but NFL programming and entertainment director Lawrence Randall says things generally run smoothly because the league picks a performer who "resonates around the world" and negotiates set lists and, of course, wardrobe choices in advance. (Still, the NFL can't anticipate everything, like pop singer M.I.A.'s decision to flip the bird during her 2012 halftime appearance with Madonna.)

As for the game itself, Brown says, "Since this will be for many viewers the first time they've tuned into a game all season, it's important to set the table and be on top of all the storylines."

That includes the tale of two brothers: Ravens coach John Harbaugh, 50, and his petit frere, Jim Harbaugh, 49, who coaches the 49ers, are the first siblings to face off in a Super Bowl. There also will be much attention paid to Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer who, after 17 seasons, will be playing his final game. As with any unscripted TV show, cameras will be tracking their every move. Think of the Harbaughs as the Kardashians for one given Sunday.

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For the actual game, it's like any other football contest -- the key for Arnold and his team is to be as prepared as possible. To wit, the lead director has been watching lots of tapes of both teams to get a sense of what he'll be in for, and he's concerned that tricky 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is just as likely to fake a handoff and throw a pass as he is to just take off and run. That kind of unpredictability can befuddle TV crews as much as it can flummox a defense. "We're the third team out there," says Arnold. "Peyton Manning once said he knew he ran a good fake when he had the cameraman fooled."

No matter what happens on Super Bowl Sunday, soon after the game ends, it will be Fox's turn to start preparing for the 2014 Super Bowl in New York, and in an effort to make it more spectacular than ever, there will be more high-speed cameras, snazzier graphic packages and new high school teams. The arms race will continue, even though, ultimately, it is not the technology, resources or personnel (CBS will have 500 employees working the game) that make the Super Bowl a singular TV property that continually attracts larger audiences in the face of a perpetually fractured media landscape. "People get too worked up by the number of cameras," notes SNF 's Drew Esocoff, who has directed four Super Bowls. "If any director tells you they're looking at 60 cameras, they're lying."

Rather it is the game itself that makes the Super Bowl one of the last truly communal experiences in modern American culture. "We really don't share things anymore," says Ohlmeyer. "The Super Bowl is really the last thing that 40 percent or 50 percent of the country is attached to. And that's what makes it important."