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NFL Strives For G-Rated Super Bowl

By Frank Ahrens and Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 6, 2005

Charles Coplin is the man charged with making sure viewers do not witness another "wardrobe malfunction" or anything like it during today's telecast of the Super Bowl. He started by telling Sir Paul McCartney to keep it clean.

In his day job, Coplin is vice president of the National Football League's fledgling cable channel. But for the past several months, he has been responsible for creating a pregame and halftime show that will neither ignite another scandal nor bring a government indecency fine, both of which followed Janet Jackson's brief breast exposure during last year's Super Bowl halftime show.

The Super Bowl is the most-watched television event of each year. As many as 150 million people are expected to tune in at some point to today's NFL title game, pitting the reigning champion New England Patriots against the Philadelphia Eagles. Advertising time is selling for a record $2.4 million per 30-second spot.

No one is taking any chances.

Choosing a British knight for the entertainment is only one of several ways this year's Super Bowl is striving to be more G-rated than last year's. Advertisers such as Anheuser-Busch Inc., criticized last year for ads some considered crude, have promised to throttle it back for today's game. Erectile-dysfunction drug Cialis will hold its commercial late in the third quarter, airing well after 9 p.m. And the NFL, embarrassed by last year's debacle, took back control of the game's entertainment, which it ceded to MTV last year. The league even scrutinized every lyric in McCartney's song list.

"Essentially, we have total oversight, and I am responsible," Coplin said in Jacksonville on Thursday.

Coplin got on the case last summer and locked down the family-friendly McCartney in November. He flew to London several times to meet with the ex-Beatle to emphasize that the NFL needed a squeaky-clean performance, a league spokesman said. But then the NFL went a step further: Unlike last year, when CBS and its often-naughty corporate cousin MTV wrote the contracts for Jackson and co-star Justin Timberlake, the NFL crafted a contract with McCartney that holds him liable for any indecency fine that may come from his performance.

"I can tell you that I won't have a wardrobe malfunction," McCartney said in Jacksonville on Thursday.

This year's Super Bowl is being broadcast by Fox, which has final say over which ads air during the game. There was intense discussion between Fox, the advertisers and their ad agencies as commercials were finished in recent weeks to make sure they are as unobjectionable as possible, network executives said. Fox already is in hot water with the government. The Rupert Murdoch-owned network is appealing a $1.2 million indecency fine proposed by the Federal Communications Commission last year for a 2003 episode of "Married by America" that featured whipped-cream covered strippers and digitally obscured nudity.

The government proposed fining CBS-owned stations a total of $550,000 for last year's halftime show, but that was only the start. By the end of the year, the FCC had levied nearly $4 million in indecency fines for a variety of shows. Congress worked to raise fines even higher.

In response, broadcasters such as NBC and Fox self-censored programs, cutting images and language they never would have before. Fox pixelated nude posteriors on cartoon characters in the animated series "Family Guy," CBS added a several-minute video delay to live events such as the Grammys and NBC cut a brief glimpse of an elderly woman's breasts on "ER," even though the show airs after 10 p.m., when FCC decency regulations no longer are enforced. (The government's authority to police indecency is restricted to broadcast radio and television only -- not cable or satellite -- and only from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.)

Despite the unpredictability of a live broadcast, however, Fox said it will not use a delay in today's game, because: "We believe a sports event is a news event," said David Hill, chairman of Fox Sports Television Group.

Thursday in Jacksonville, Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports, said: "The halftime show even before Janet Jackson became not terribly suitable for the audience that was watching. Those kind of performances are best not seen on a widely viewed show on American television, and it shouldn't have happened."

Stinging from last year, the NFL turned to veteran television producer Don Mischer for today's halftime show. In addition to putting on the 1993 Super Bowl halftime show, which starred Michael Jackson, Mischer's credits include the Kennedy Center Honors, the 1996 Summer Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, and the 100th anniversary of Carnegie Hall.

As decorous as his productions have been, Mischer himself had a brush with indecency last July, when he was producing the Democratic Convention. After Sen. John F. Kerry's acceptance speech, Mischer was overheard yelling on CNN as balloons failed to drop from the rafters of Boston's Fleet Center. Or failed to drop as quickly as Mischer wanted, prompting him to shout an obscenity.

This year's Super Bowl broadcast will include ads from Pizza Hut, Subway, Volvo, CareerBuilder, Pepsi, FedEx and Cialis, among others. One of Busch's ads today features comedian Cedric the Entertainer talking about responsible drinking and designated drivers. Napster, the groundbreaking peer-to-peer file-sharing service shut down in 2001 for allowing users to trade digital music for free and reborn as a legal business in 2003, will have an ad.

There will be at least six commercials for upcoming movies, including Paramount's remake of "War of the Worlds." Unilever, makers of Degree antiperspirant, will spoof old G.I. Joe commercials by using action figures in its ad. And in the now-you-know-where-they-are category, a Frito-Lay commercial will feature baggy-panted '80s rap icon M.C. Hammer.

Last year, Busch, which makes Budweiser and a number of other beers, drew criticism for its Super Bowl ads featuring a flatulent horse, which, if not indecent, were tasteless to many.

After huddling with Fox and the advertisers, the NFL is confident such ads won't be repeated this year. "What you see, I think, is the leading companies in America, great brands, listening to their customers and making some judgments that they're going to change some of their advertising," NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in Jacksonville on Friday.

Some pharmaceutical companies running Super Bowl ads cannot change language that many may find offensive -- or at least difficult to explain to their young sons and daughters watching the game with them. The Federal Drug Administration requires all erectile-dysfunction ads to list possible side effects. Several times during last year's Super Bowl, viewers heard warnings about the possibility of four-hour erections.

Drug giant Eli Lilly and Co., which makes Cialis, said it buys ad time in the Super Bowl because the event is a target-rich demographic -- lots of male viewers older than 40. The nation's changing attitudes enable Cialis to advertise in a way that would likely have been impossible only a few years ago, the drugmaker said.

"We try to gauge what is appropriate," said Matt Beebe, Lilly's U.S. brand team leader, "and there has been a shift in the last five to six years with how things are talked about in open public. We've observed that and take note of it."

Though the line of what is acceptable may have moved for some in recent years, a number of Americans evidently disagree.

Last year, the FCC -- charged with policing the radio and television airwaves for violations of its decency rules -- received 1.07 million complaints about 314 radio and television programs. It got more than 500,000 complaints about the halftime show of last year's Super Bowl.

To put this number in context, in 2003, the agency received 202,032 complaints about 375 programs.

In response, lawmakers in both houses of Congress have introduced bills that would raise the maximum indecency fine from $32,500, up to $500,000 in one version.

The 62-year-old McCartney -- the sexagenarian hired to keep sex out of the Super Bowl and author of the lyric "She was just 17/You know what I mean" -- said he had a "slight inkling" that he was considered a safe choice for today's broadcast. But he added, "That's okay. It's an honor to do it."

Shapiro contributed to this report from Jacksonville.

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