It’s TV’s biggest kill: an estimated 120 million people all watching the same football game at the same time. And like a jackal sneaking in under the cover of comedy, Fox is determined to chew off a chunk of CBS’ Super Bowl prey Sunday.
As halftime rolls around, Fox executives predict, the Super Bowl broadcast on CBS will lumber into the usual lull, and tens of millions of viewers will, as in past years, be tempted to go to the bathroom, go to the refrigerator, go outside to chuck the football around with their assembled friends. It is at that moment, just as the masses are about to rise from their sofas and recliners, that Fox will break into programming on all of its affiliates across the country to present “The ‘In Living Color’ Super Halftime Party.”
By offering a live party featuring football-related comedy performed by the cast of one of Fox’s biggest and baaddest shows, the “rebel network” (as Keenen Ivory Wayans, executive producer of “In Living Color,” calls it) is hoping that it can induce those millions of viewers into doing the unthinkable: switching away from the Super Bowl to watch something else.
Wayans admits that he feels a bit like a jackal taking a bite out of the massive audience lured to television in the first place by CBS, which paid enormous rights fees to the National Football League. But don’t think he or Fox feel bad about it.
“There is no guilt when it comes to the ratings war,” Wayans said.
“We are going to put a clock in the bottom of the screen counting down the minutes to the second half so the audience can switch back. We’re not asking them to miss any of the game,” said Jamie Kellner, president of Fox Broadcasting Co. “All we’re trying to do is offer an alternative entertainment opportunity, and then, with great courtesy, we will escort the audience back to their seats.”
The fun, as foretold by the Fox opportunists, begins as the halftime gun sounds on CBS--during prime time in the eastern half of the country, approximately 4:45 p.m. here. CBS will then inevitably cut to a few of the $1.6-million-a-minute Super Bowl commercials, while on Fox, viewers will be welcomed into a Super Bowl-viewing party attended by the cast and friends of “In Living Color.”
On CBS, Terry Bradshaw, John Madden and crew will then commence their spirited and serious analysis of the first half. Statistics will be rolled out and speculation will fly on who needs to establish the run, come with the blitz or pick up the intensity in the second half.
Over on Fox, Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier will be performing live as the flamboyant gay critics Blaine and Antoine in a “Men on Football” sketch that is sure to focus more on tight ends and chances to score than on tight spirals and the actual score.
On CBS, pop star Gloria Estefan will cap a 1,500-person halftime extravaganza with a medley from the floor of the Minneapolis Metrodome.
On Fox, the Homeboys, played by Keenen Ivory Wayans and Damon Wayans, will loot the locker rooms of the two teams, hocking jockstraps and other items as they flee from Super Bowl security.
On CBS, viewers will see computer-animated bottles of beer battling in yet another “Bud Bowl,” and one lucky Bud drinker will win $1 million.
On Fox, viewers will see commercials for Frito-Lay’s new Bite Size Doritos, and one lucky chip muncher will win $1 million.
The rival halftime show was the brainchild of Jay Coleman, president of Entertainment Marketing & Communications International, who was searching for a marketing concept that would “ambush” the Super Bowl. Coleman explained that as costs for ads on the Super Bowl have soared, and with the proliferation of the “Bud Bowl” and other high-profile commercials designed specifically for the game, it has become increasingly difficult and prohibitively expensive for many sponsors to break through the ad clutter.
In searching for alternatives, Coleman said, the obvious “weak link” was halftime.
He tried to orchestrate a rival halftime show last year featuring rap star Hammer, but he said that time constraints and the outbreak of the Gulf War thwarted that effort.
This year, Coleman first signed Frito-Lay, which agreed to buy all of the national advertising spots during the half-hour show, to bankroll much of the production and to pay for radio promotion.
Coleman said that Frito-Lay will spend about $2 million on the event. But whereas that money would buy just 75 seconds of commercial time on the actual Super Bowl, he said, Frito-Lay this way will “own halftime.”
Coleman next went to Wayans, whose show was haplessly scheduled to go up against the Super Bowl anyway, and he jumped at the chance to siphon his way to a larger audience.
“When I watch the Super Bowl, halftime was always a chance to go to the bathroom or change the channel,” Wayans said. “But there was never really anything to change the channel to. That’s why this is such a great idea. Seriously, I don’t know anyone who likes halftime, except for the parents of the children out marching on the field.”
For Fox, which has thrived by ambushing the other networks, the show will, at the very least, provide a one-time financial boon and probably attract some first-time viewers to one of the network’s premier shows. At best, it could turn into an annual way to combat the Super Bowl, which rotates each year among each of the Big Three networks.
“I think it’s a brilliant idea,” said Pam Warren, vice president and media director for Los Angeles ad agency Rubin Postaer & Associates, who looked into buying time on the Fox show for her clients before realizing it was wholly-sponsored by Frito-Lay. “Believe me, if this works, it will be the next big thing.”
How well will it work?
Warren said that CBS executives “must be nervous” or else they wouldn’t have gone to the expense of signing a major pop star like Estefan, who was tabbed for the show just three weeks ago. She added that advertisers who have bought time at halftime on CBS are certainly upset about Fox’s assault.
CBS, however, is not fretting, at least in public. George F. Schweitzer, CBS’ senior vice president for communications, said that the network is doing nothing unusual to hype its own halftime show.
The Super Bowl is the “singular television event of the year,” he said, and while the “Fox idea is cute,” CBS is confident that the Super Bowl will be up to the challenge. He also said that no Super Bowl advertiser had expressed concern about the competition.
Nonetheless, Fox’s president sounded as pumped up and confident as a 300-pound defensive end as he butts heads with his teammates just before kickoff.
“I’m afraid,” Kellner said, “that we just might overload the Nielsen meters with all that channel changing.”