It was halftime at the 1993 Super Bowl between the Buffalo Bills and the Dallas Cowboys, but more Americans at home tuned in to watch Jackson than the first half, the New York Times reported. All told, the broadcast drew an estimated 133.4 million U.S. viewers, according to the Los Angeles Times — setting a record for television viewership at the time and cementing a new era of Super Bowl halftime shows, ones replete with superstars and showmanship.
The NFL was ecstatic, given that halftime shows that had long been a weak spot in Super Bowl production. After Jackson’s success, Beyoncé, Madonna, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Prince and other big names were tapped to perform at Super Bowls. The pop-star driven performances generated buzz and retained viewers.
On Sunday, Justin Timberlake will take the stage in Minneapolis.
The show has come a long way since the Super Bowl’s debut in 1967, when trumpeter Al Hirt played along with marching bands from Grambling State University and the University of Arizona, according to the Times-Picayune. While the bands marched in various formations, forming outlines of a riverboat, the Liberty Bell and the continental United States, it wasn’t a spectacle so much as a way to fill time.
During the next several decades halftime featured the same sort of acts — often with a theme that had nothing to do with football, such as 1976’s “Tribute to America’s Bicentennial” and 1981’s “Mardi Gras Festival.” There was nothing inherently wrong with these shows, but they certainly weren’t conversation pieces.
For good or for ill, that changed in 1989 during Super Bowl XXIII. Milwaukee-based producer Dan Witkowski won a bid from the NFL to create the halftime show, which he took in a radically new direction.
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle “had not been in favor of using celebrity types for the halftime show,” Witkowski told For the Win. “It was generally marching bands or Disney doing something with parade floats and so we thought, ‘Oh, let’s have a little fun with this and do something silly.’ ”
So he came up with a 1950s musical revue that involved 2,000 dancers (many wearing life-size playing cards), a bunch of Harley Davidson motorcycles, and an Elvis Presley impersonator named Elvis Presto who didn’t sing Elvis songs. Instead, he performed a card trick.
“All of the baby boomers were trying to cling on to the past, and so it just all kind of clicked from that standpoint,” Witkowski said of the idea.
Adding to the absurdity was the fact that it was the first network broadcast in 3-D, which proved to be a hurdle.
Coca-Cola, the presenting sponsor, handed out 3-D glasses at corner stores and the like, but the company had only 26 million pairs, according to Mental Floss. The Super Bowl generally drew about triple that audience.
Meanwhile, the Coca-Cola Company drew criticism for its news release about the broadcast that stated, “Optometrists say some people who don’t get full 3-D effect with the special glasses may have poor eye coordination.” Some columnists, such as the Orlando Sentinel’s Greg Dawson, could only imagine doctors’ offices filling with terrified patients the next day.
A stoic Bob Costas said the show was “almost too exciting to bear.”
Whether the spectacle was successful depends on personal taste, but the next year the NFL returned to a halftime show with marching bands and jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain.
In 1991, the NFL brought in boy band New Kids on the Block to perform, making halftime of Super Bowl XXV the first to feature a contemporary pop artist. But not many people actually saw it, because ABC didn’t air it until after the game. Instead, the network played a report on U.S. forces in Operation Desert Storm, according to the Atlantic.
In 1992, Gloria Estefan led another panned halftime show, replete with giant inflatable snowmen, children rapping about Frosty the Snowman and Olympians Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano ice skating around a stage.
It was a huge flop for the network, particularly because Fox — which wasn’t yet affiliated with the NFL — siphoned a large portion of the game’s viewership from CBS. During halftime, Fox aired a live episode of its often irreverent sketch comedy show “In Living Color.” A clock on the bottom of the screen counted down until the second half, so fans could switch over to Fox for a laugh without missing a second of the big game. The counterprogramming worked brilliantly. CBS lost 22 percent of its audience, as “In Living Color” racked up 22 million viewers, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The show’s creator, Keenen Ivory Wayans, had predicted correctly when he told the Tribune of the halftime show: “Most of the time, people just get up and go to the bathroom or check to see if the food is done or make another beer run.”
The NFL didn’t want anyone making a beer run, and it certainly didn’t want anyone changing the channel in the middle of the biggest audience draw of the year.
The next year, everything would change. The organization enlisted Radio City Music Hall Productions with the goal of creating a relevant halftime show that would appeal to 18- to 34-year-olds, according to the New York Times.
They chose Jackson, and the NFL hasn’t enlisted a marching band or a 3-D card trick ever since.