The Accidental Evolution of the Super Bowl Pregame Show
It happened by accident. That’s what will always stand out for Mike Pearl.
He was sitting in the producer’s chair for CBS’ Super Bowl XII pregame show in New Orleans. The network had only blocked out 90 minutes before the game between the Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys, a decent chunk of television devoted to analyzing one game, but as often the case with live TV, things change. Fast.
Prior to the Super Bowl that day, CBS was scheduled to air two things: an NBA game, followed by final-round coverage of the PGA Tour’s Phoenix Open. Everything was set up perfectly until the golf was called early due to cold weather, leaving the network with a big hole to fill before the Big Game.
“Bob Wussler, the president of CBS Sports, made the decision as soon as he found out about the cancellation of the golf tournament,” Pearl recalls. “Bob said, ‘We’ll run the basketball game as far as we can and then get everything up and running. We’ll do a pre-pregame show.'”
With that, the modern Super Bowl pregame extravaganza was born.
As the biggest event on the country’s sporting calendar gets set for its 50th installment this weekend, millions of Americans will once again tune in – whether they are die-hard football fans or casual observers. Last year, the final 30 minutes of NBC’s pregame show for Super Bowl XLIX averaged 72.7 million viewers, making it the most watched kickoff segment since measurements were first taken in 1988.
But while the final 30 minutes might be the most watched, the lead-up to kickoff has almost become just as big as the game itself. In 50 years, the Super Bowl pregame show has gone from two guys talking for a half-hour to over seven hours of programming planned for Sunday’s game.
“When I first did it, it was pretty simple: set the table for 30 minutes to maybe an hour,” says CBS’ James Brown, who will anchor the network’s pregame show on Sunday. “But because the game has grown so much in popularity, it’s become an event that people don’t even have to follow all year long. Human nature, with big events, you’re always going to be drawn to that.”
Which is the main reason why the three networks who currently hold the rights to broadcast the Super Bowl – CBS, Fox and NBC – have increasingly continued to build on what has come before them.
Super Bowl I’s pregame show, a brief synopsis of the game to come from CBS’ announcers, was as rudimentary as the game itself. Almost no flash, no razzle-dazzle, nothing extemporaneous. Just a brief breakdown of the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game by Pat Summerall.
That was pretty much the formula that CBS and NBC – which split broadcasting duties for Super Bowl I and alternated until ABC joined the party for Super Bowl XIX – stuck with for the early years of the game.
“The attitude was, ‘Well, we usually don’t do this, but this is pretty big so we’ll give you a whole half-hour extra,'” says Ed Bark, a former longtime television critic for the Dallas Morning News. “But the networks were always trying to find new gimmicks to tack on.”
Once the Super Bowl began to grown in earnest, capturing the attention of the entire country for one whole day, the pregame show had no choice but to grow with it. Before Super Bowl VI, CBS kept its pregame show to the standard 30 minutes, but ran two specials beforehand – an hour-long program on Vince Lombardi (narrated by George C. Scott) followed by an hour-long look at minor league football.