Thanks to the controversial Super Bowl halftime show seven months ago, the NFL's preseason kickoff show tonight will be live for everyone but television viewers. They'll see the event on a 10-second delay.
The show is the league's first since that controversial performance, which is expected to soon bring CBS the largest fine ever assessed by the Federal Communications Commission.
"ABC has a policy where all of its live programming is delayed by five seconds," ABC spokesman Mark Mandel told the Associated Press. "The NFL is adding another five seconds."
As it promised in the turmoil that followed the exposure of singer Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl halftime show in February, the NFL has paid close attention to every aspect of the show that precedes the 9 p.m. kickoff between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots.
"We're working very diligently to assure we don't have this kind of incident again, and not just the wardrobe malfunction, but the entire show," said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. "We're working with the talent and their [record] labels. When you look at the difference between the Super Bowl and now, this time we have our own production team to execute our vision of what this should be. Another difference is that MTV [also a Viacom company and producer of the Super Bowl show] had contracts with the talent. We did reject some of it. This year, we wrote the contracts, and they are liable to the NFL if anything goes wrong."
The Super Bowl show featured a performance in which Justin Timberlake ripped Jackson's outfit, briefly exposing her breast to 90 million viewers. The FCC, according to a Washington Post report earlier this week, plans to fine each of the 20 stations that CBS owns $27,500 (CBS, in turn, is owned by Viacom). That's a total of $550,000, a record amount levied against a TV broadcaster.
"We are very cognizant of what happened in the past and very cognizant of what went on in the past," said Charles Coplin, an NFL Network vice president and former producer for ABC and ESPN (both owned by Disney). He was not involved in the February Super Bowl production. "That has been on our minds, and so is putting on a very entertaining show for the entire family. . . .
"We are putting it out with a 10-second delay. The NFL will have a five-second delay and ABC will have a five-second delay. Both partners will have the opportunity to cut in if we see something either one of us feels is inappropriate. But our conversations with the performers have made us very comfortable. They know what's at stake as well."
The pregame show, which begins at 8 p.m., will originate from Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. Coplin, who came to the league four years ago, has been involved in every aspect of the production, from selecting the talent to having final say on the music, lyrics, costumes and choreography, along with Steve Bornstein, the head of the NFL Network and the league's director of broadcasting.
Destiny's Child, Toby Keith, Lenny Kravitz, Mary J. Blige and Elton John with the Boston Pops will perform in Foxboro, with Jessica Simpson appearing in a song taped from an NFL-sponsored concert earlier tonight in Jacksonville, Fla., the site of Super Bowl XXXIX.
The issue of what constitutes acceptable family entertainment during an NFL broadcast didn't suddenly arise in February. In last year's kickoff concert on The Mall in Washington before the game between the Washington Redskins and New York Jets, the league was not happy with a revealing outfit worn by pop star Britney Spears. The league thought her attire was inappropriate, but apparently never saw the costume before the concert because Spears had rehearsed in baggy sweats during the week.
"It's an entertaining show people will want to watch," Coplin said. "We think it's appropriate for fans of all ages. That was our charge."
The NFL has always had oversight on its shows, but has admitted it was lax in reviewing the halftime performance before the Super Bowl on Feb. 1. The league farmed out that production to Viacom and its MTV subsidiary, which selected the performers and supervised the production. The week after the controversy stole headlines from the game, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue appeared before Congress and said the league was embarrassed by the show and that it would take over all league-related productions.
There were other significant ramifications, including other networks implementing tape delays in subsequent awards shows and other live entertainment as well as calls from Congress and the public for the FCC to be more vigilant in enforcing decency standards.
"From a sports standpoint, it hasn't really affected us at all," Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports, said. "We look at it as a really unfortunate occurrence that probably could have been avoided if we and some other people had gone a different direction with respect to the talent. It hasn't affected the way we cover games. We're not doing sporting events on a five-second delay. . . . I think all of us realize we're not going to make the same mistake we made last February in Houston."