On Super Bowl Sunday, the business of America is football, yes, but the business of America is television, too. Yesterday, business was booming. Also roaring, thundering and exploding.
Super Bowl XXII, live from San Diego, saw a titanic victory by the Washington Redskins and a spectacular display of teletechnical acrobatics by ABC Sports. The Super Bowl is an irresistible national convocation and, more so in this case than usual, a gratifying celebration of Yankee know-how.
We may feel we've lost a number of knacks in this country, but we still make great television. And great television commercials. And oh yes, the football game; for Washington viewers especially, this one was a particularly exhilarating kick, with the Redskins defeating the Denver Broncos by a humiliating 42 to 10.
"This," declared ABC's Al Michaels early in the second quarter, "has the makings of the Super Bowl we've been waiting 22 years for!" The game had just become exciting at that point and had not yet turned into a rout. ABC told the story all night with flash and drama, capturing all the intimate details and the panoramic scope.
Within the context of the Redskins victory was the personal triumph of Doug Williams, the first black player to start as quarterback in Super Bowl history. In the two weeks preceding the game, this aspect was hardly underplayed. When the moment itself came, ABC seemed to handle it just right.
Joining Michaels in the ABC booth were Frank Gifford and Dan Dierdorf. They lacked the energy of the two-man CBS Sports team, Pat Summerall and John Madden, with Dierdorf clearly not Madden's match. Gifford didn't say much and came across as expendable. But the fatuous cant and groaning cliche's were kept at minimums.
At some moments, the technical standards lagged. Taped replays were occasionally slow to come up; a couple of times, live action was rejoined a little late. But there were such eye-catching innovations as a remote-controlled goal post camera, which at one point appeared to pan a full 360 degrees.
We expect the Super Bowl to be an orgy of excess and this one very merrily was. Hype feeds on hype and becomes a kind of art. But the Super Bowl is also a cavalcade of commerce, when American advertisers bid high for access to an audience of as many as 120 million viewers. This year sponsors paid as much as $650,000 for 30 seconds of commercial time, and at those rates, you want your message to register.
Nobody's registered better yesterday than McDonald's, which contributed the fake-out of the night with a clever ad called "Time Out" that aired just before that awesome moment, the opening coin toss.
The commercial started like an ordinary one, with basketball star Michael Jordan strolling into a McDonald's restaurant. Suddenly the picture began to break up, the commercial disappeared, and dead silence broke through. A viewer's heart had to stop: satellite failure! The game just about to begin! There could have been a panic to match the one Orson Welles caused with his Martian landing on the radio in 1938.
But it was a little joke. The blackness was penetrated with stark white letters: "Quiet please. We have a pretty important announcement. We were going to wait till halftime. But we were just too excited. So here it is.
"McDonald's proudly announces, the cheddar melt ... Thank you for listening." There was no sound throughout. Amid the otherwise unrelenting clatter of the commercial sound tracks, the rock music and barking announcers, McDonald's had found a brilliant way to get attention. It was the kind of stunt you can really only play once. Once a Super Bowl, anyway.
Otherwise, the Super Bowl did not show Madison Avenue at its wittiest. The beers were poured, the car accelerators were floored, Jamie Farr and Wayne Rogers did more cutesy spiels for IBM, and Federal Express dispatched fish-shaped and TV-set-shaped and globe-shaped packages hither and thither.
Spuds MacKenzie, the hapless Bud Light dog, was put on skis as a way of moving more brew; the exploitation of this homely mutt has gone too far. But there was a payoff from another beer dog, Stroh Light's Alex, whose owner put him through a series of dog impressions that included Benji and Rin Tin Tin. For his close he came out as Spuds. But the guys sitting around watching him couldn't figure out whom he was supposed to be, ha ha.
Jacko, the Australian shouter, boarded a surrealistic subway car for Energizer batteries (a visual reference to the Woody Allen film "Stardust Memories," perhaps?), and the Bartles & Jaymes duo unveiled a new "Premium Berry Wine Cooler." Demi Moore went out on a ledge, literally, for Diet Coke, and Michael J. Fox and an unidentified girlfriend were chased into and out of a truck by yet another dog for Diet Pepsi.
The spots weren't great, most of them, but they were up up up. They showed an America of happy, singing, hugging, loving people. In one dramatic McDonald's commercial, a young man just missed qualifying for the Olympic track team. He returned to his home town in "Carson County" in dejection. But there at the train station, a Capra-esque assortment of friends and relatives was waiting to cheer him anyway. Lump in the throat!
The moral was: Have the "courage to dream." Strangely or not, the ad aired just after the Redskins had suffered a scoreless first quarter and then suddenly reversed their fortunes, coming from behind and staying ahead through the rest of the game.
Naturally ABC was merciless in plugging its upcoming telecast of the Winter Olympic Games from Calgary, Alberta. Jim McKay is already up there and already talking. Coverage begins with a pre-Games special next Sunday, with actual events to commence the Sunday after that.
The worst commercial of the night also had an Olympic theme. It was a New York Life ad in which a skier frozen in a snow drift during the '88 Games is thawed in 2014. Then materializes the gorgeous daughter of his old insurance agent, now an agent herself. Oh brother. Oh mother. Oh get out of here.
As far as intrusions into the happy, hypey Super Bowlish fantasy world, there were really only two. First, a crisp and succinct four-minute ABC News report, with Peter Jennings (in a less drab suit than usual) during the pregame show. And second, a grim Shearson Lehman Hutton commercial that lectured against "program trading."
"Volatility in the stock market has eroded investor confidence," said the ad. It was a real faceful of cold water. So was local WJLA reporter Roberta Baskin promising us during a promo that she'd tell us about radon levels in Redskins players' homes after the game. Pardon us if we don't wait up.
Halftime festivities were fittingly inflated. There were 88 white grand pianos and 44 Radio City Music Hall Rockettes down on the field, which was plenty. But even this was supplemented with roller-skaters and Jazzercizers and a marching band and there, atop a thingamabob, Chubby Checker doing "The Super Bowl Twist." And you know, Chubby's not just chubby any more. But the halftime show was, as many are, endearingly dopey.
The pregame show, two hours long, included such dubious extravagances as a live shot from Beijing, which was supposed to show us that nobody was watching the Super Bowl, they were too busy going to work. But the shot was a bust; it turned into a black-and-white still picture that was not identifiably Chinese. ABC had better luck with live shots of Dennis Conner on his yacht in San Diego Bay, although Dennis Conner is one of those guys who looks like a still picture anyway.
Keith Jackson was setting up the game with his usual engaging finesse. "The swords and the shields are all polished, and the warriors have arrived at the arena," he declared soberly. Ah yes. But the gladiator metaphors seemed less apt than fiduciary metaphors. ABC stood to make as much as $50 million on the game. The business of television is always business.
But on Super Bowl Sunday, the best course is to just grin and go along with it. And this year, the grin came easy. It came easy and it did not fade fast.