NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Super Bowl viewers who gripe about the halftime show should be grateful for Katy Perry.
It used to be much worse.
Before 1992, the Super Bowl halftime show was exactly that: A little show put on to fill the time between the game's halves. Until 1990, that usually consisted of marching bands, pre-Glee chorus groups and the occasional tune from Carol Channing, George Burns, Andy Williams and other notables from the annals of history. It was an inoffensive, forgettable charade of an experience that allowed everyone to refill drinks, use the bathroom and otherwise pry themselves away from the television set.
That all changed after Super Bowl XXVI in 1992. A company called Timberline Productions decided to celebrate the host city of Minneapolis and the Olympic year by saddling CBS (CBS - Get Report) with a halftime show featuring a figure skating performance from Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill and exactly two songs from easy-listening powerhouse Gloria Estefan. Keep in mind that figure skating and its non-contact, painstakingly judged format are not only the polar opposite of football, but perhaps the one event that the most die-hard football fans would go out of their way to avoid.
The NFL, its network partners and its sponsors didn't see it that way. They not only had the hubris to believe that viewers would tune in to any grade-school talent show they put on just because it was sandwiched by the Super Bowl, but continually tested viewers' patience by keeping pop acts to a two-song limit or eliminating them all together. Upstart network Fox (FOXA) saw this and just knew that the NFL was lulling the prized 18- to 49-year-old demographic into a near coma. For the 1992 Super Bowl, Fox put together a special halftime edition of its sketch comedy show In Living Color.
The show that gave the world Jim Carrey, David Alan Grier, Jennifer Lopez and the entire Wayans family not only held its own against Gloria Estefan On Ice, but drew more than 20 million viewers away from a Super Bowl telecast that averaged 80 million viewers throughout. That's one in four viewers who abandoned CBS for something, anything, that didn't involve toe loops or Get On Your Feet.
The NFL vowed to never have itself or its network partners humiliated in such fashion again and immediately booked Michael Jackson as the halftime act for NBC's Super Bowl XXVII coverage in 1993. The result: Those who saw it remember Jackson's set and the big audience card trick, but don't recall that it was O.J. Simpson who conducted the ceremonial coin toss little more than a year before his arrest in the killings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
That blockbuster approach to the Super Bowl halftime show has paid off mightily. Bruno Mars and the weathered remnants of the Red Hot Chili Peppers pulled in about 115 million viewers last year. That was the largest Super Bowl halftime viewership of all time, exceeding the 114 million who watched Madonna tho years earlier.
The league and its partners haven't hit the mark every time, though. We took a look back through 48 years of halftime shows, and while we couldn't find fault the marching bands — because you wish you were lucky enough to have the NFL throw you a modern, awesome marching band — there were a whole lot of other misguided attempts at holding an audience. Here are just five:
Up With People
Super Bowl XX (1986)
How do you explain Up With People without making it sound like a cult or the fevered dream of an overindulged '70s or '80s club kid?
You get as reductive as possible.
Imagine if the cast of Glee was called in to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show. Now imagine that the producers of that show could only get the rights to small snippets of the popular songs of the moment, so they had to write the rest of the music and lyrics themselves. Imagine that the resulting songs sounded like the soundtrack to a PBS special and were so feeble that the show's producers ordered show creator Ryan Murphy to hire hundreds of dancers to distract viewers from the music, or have his show immediately canceled and himself and co-creator Brad Falchuk cast into the the psychiatric hospital from American Horror Story: Asylum.
Throw in some voice-of-God narration from the stadium PA system, some dead-eyed singers staring into nothingness and a few random color guards and drill teams and you have Up With People. That's what viewers had for halftime entertainment for 20% of the Super Bowl's first two decades, as the group also performed at the 1976, 1980 and 1982 halftime shows.
Up With People looked like an English language overdub of a Kim Jong Un birthday celebration and sounded like what the Manson family would have been doing if they didn't decide to go murdering people and end the '60s. It was terrifying but, for some reason, none of us could look away.
Be Bop Bamboozled
Super Bowl XXIII (1989)
The memory of this should haunt anyone who hasn't placed it deep enough in the recesses of their minds to forget about it.
The folks at Coca-Cola apparently went on a weeklong peyote vision quest when deciding how best to pitch their product during a halftime show. They came up with this: a 3-D display featuring a rambling Bob Costas intro, an Elvis impersonator (Elvis Presto) who was obscure by even that modest standard, a bunch of South Florida dancers and a musical card trick that not only involved listening to almost three minutes of instructional lyrics, but keeping up with onscreen effects that can still induce vomiting and seizures.
Keep in mind that from the first Super Bowl in 1967 to when Elvis Presley died in 1977, the NFL and its Super Bowl broadcasters never bothered to invite the actual Elvis to perform at halftime. At least The Beatles were eventually represented at the Super Bowl by 62-year-old Paul McCartney in 2005. Elvis got a low-budget birthday and bar/bat-mitzvah performer who not only didn't sing Elvis songs, but put mundane instructions to music while 3-D versions of the Saved by the Bell intro flew by at six times their normal speed.
How a Super Bowl audience managed to watch this whole thing with any degree of sobriety remains a mystery. How anyone was able to explain this as "entertainment" to viewers of any age, never mind giving it the green light for a network's most-watched program of the year, is equally difficult. I was 12 when this aired and watched it with my grandmother, who was in her mid-60s at the time. She remembered when halftime consisted of the grounds crew locating lost appendages and priests blessing huge needles full of morphine before jabbing them into Johnny Unitas' leg. I was embarrassed on her behalf.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye
Super Bowl XXIX (1995)
In 1989, Walt Disney World opened Disney-MGM Studios to give visitors a peek into the sausage factory that is its television and movie business.
You could see the Golden Girls' house on the Touchstone backlot, you could peek in on the animation work that wasn't being outsourced and you could watch a Muppets 3-D film, ride a Star Wars ride and watch an Indiana Jones stunt show before Disney had bought the rights to any of those properties. With the Super Bowl returning to South Florida for the first time since the Elvis Presto debacle, Disney decided to produce a halftime show that would keep viewers riveted and entice them into visiting the newest corner of its World.
It failed on both counts. Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, Tony Bennett, Arturo Sandoval and the Gloria-Estefan-free Miami Sound Machine served as sideshows and background music for a stunt show featuring an "Indiana Jones" who wasn't Harrison Ford, a Marion Ravenwood who wasn't Karen Allen and a franchise that hadn't produced a film since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade six years earlier. Even Super Bowl host network ABC's Young Indiana Jones Chronicles finished its network run in 1993 and was relegated to the occasional TV movie by ABC Family by the time this unfolded.
None of this prevented Disney from having Patti LaBelle perform New Attitude on fake Mayan temple steps or Tony Bennett from crooning a swingin' dance number as showgirls and tuxedo-clad hoofers circled around him. Between musical numbers, fake Indy snarled out his lines in a growl that would make Han Solo blush and he and Marion fought off stunt teams of place guards and ninjas with punching effects lifted from a bad dub of a 1970 Shaw Brothers Saturday afternoon kung fu epic.
By the time the show culminated in the entire cast of hundreds, apropos of nothing, singing Can You Feel The Love Tonight from Disney's The Lion King, drunken uncles across the nation stirred from their halftime slumber and wondered if they were maybe still having a nightmare. Nobody could refute them.
Blues Brothers Bash
Super Bowl XXXI (1997)
If there was a prop bet on the number of bad ideas that organizers Radio City and House of Blues could lump into this halftime show, everyone in Vegas should've taken the over.
First, it was decided that the Blues Brothers should be revived to generate interest in a film — 1998's Blues Brothers 2000 — that not only wouldn't be released for another year, but would be released 16 years after original Blues Brother John Belushi's death. Secondly, it was decreed that Belushi would be replaced by not only musically disinclined John Goodman, but by Belushi's brother and According to Jim star James Belushi. In a final insult to the viewership, the schedule dictated that not only do the three actors do the majority of the singing during a halftime show that also featured James Brown — who saved entire cities with his shows and could carry the Super Bowl's measly halftime on his own — but that they'd only get a respite when ZZ Top played. ZZ Top, which in no way met the blues standard set by John Lee Hooker, the soul standard set by Aretha Franklin or the R&B bar cleared by Ray Charles in the original film.
Couple that with the fact that the Super Bowl was being played in New Orleans — home to plenty of blues legends of its own and a full 930 miles away from the Blues Brothers' home base in Chicago — and you've set the stage for an absolute disaster. From the fake Fox News bulletin featuring anchor Catherine Crier to the first strains of Everybody Needs Somebody To Love croaked out by a goateed, lesser Belushi, it was clear that the nation was in for a long night. That was even more depressingly apparent when James Brown's two-minute medley of I Feel Good and Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine ended before the halftime show's halfway point.
Unlike most terrible Super Bowl shows of this ilk that leave the audience with no better defense than changing the channel, this one gave U.S. viewers a big opportunity for revenge. When the bloated, two-hour Blues Brothers 2000 was finally released roughly a year later, it was not only roundly panned by critics, but widely ignored by moviegoers. The $14.1 million it took home from the box office covered little more than half of the film's $28 million budget.
The Blues Brothers may have gotten the band back together as part of a "mission from God," but Super Bowl viewers and U.S. moviegoers were largely agnostic toward any Blues Brothers incarnation that didn't involve its gone-too-soon heart and soul.
Rock The Vote
Super Bowl XXXVIII (2004)
There's a whole lot about this show that got lost in Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" (P.S. Can we please kick this term out of the lexicon?).
First off, check out the show's title. This was, ostensibly, MTV and AOL's way of mustering up the youth vote and getting them to the polls for the presidential race between incumbent George W. Bush and Democratic hopeful John Kerry. Hey, it worked during the race between Bill Clinton and Bush's dad in 1992, why not now?
That brings us to our second point: the lineup. Janet Jackson and renowned fabric tearer Justin Timberlake weren't the only folks on this bill. After Janet opened with All For You off her 2001 album of the same name, Sean Combs let everyone know he would be going by "Diddy" in the near future by letting a bunch of cheerleaders turn Toni Basil's Mickey into an ode to his latest nickname. He was followed up by Nelly, who actually got to perform Hot In Herre after being relegated to a largely incoherent verse during the 2001 Aerosmith/NSync/Britney Spears halftime show.
That still didn't bring us to JT, as viewers had to contend with then rap-rocker Kid Rock. Not quite crossed over to country yet, Kid Rock blazed through Bawitdaba and Cowboy while getting more full songs on the setlist than anyone but Jackson. That's how big Kid Rock was a decade ago.
Finally, that brings us to Timberlake and Jackson's infamous version of Timberlake's Rock Your Body. By tearing into Jackson's wardrobe and revealing to the world less than a second of her nipple shield (no, it wasn't a pasty, but a piercing that surrounds the nipple and covers the areo ... wait, why are we explaining this?), Timberlake unleashed a wave of fines, censorship and moralization that didn't ebb until nearly a decade later. Clear Channel began editing songs, networks toned down soap operas and the Federal Communications Commission fined CBS, only to be overturned in a court battle that wasn't settled until 2011. AOL asked for its $7.5 million back, MTV parent Viacom paid out millions to settle lawsuits from disgruntled viewers and the vote was rocked by morally outraged portions of the U.S. audience that had no problem watching hours of players concussing themselves, but somehow developed keen enough vision to both spot Jackson's less than a second of nipple and be offended by it.
MTV didn't get its youth vote, and Super Bowl halftime watchers didn't get anything resembling youth for the better part of a decade. From 2005 through 2012, the average age of a Super Bowl halftime performer clocked in at 52. That included nobody under 30 and seven headliners over the AARP cutoff age of 55: Paul McCartney in 2005 (62), Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 2006 (each 62), Tom Petty in 2008 (57), Bruce Springsteen in 2009 (59) and The Who's Roger Daltrey (65) and Pete Townshend (64) in 2010. Even when the show decided to go "young" with Beyonce in 2013, she was 31 and 16 years removed from her major-label debut with Destiny's Child.
In January, former FCC chairman Michael Powell finally told ESPN The Magazine that the controversy, fines and reaction to the incident were all a bit much. He also defended Janet Jackson, saying she didn't deserve the scolding and ensuing blacklisting she'd received and noted that it was "unfair" that Timberlake didn't get the same treatment or worse.
Well, Mike, after eight years of fogey halftimes, the near decimation of one of the greatest musicians of the last generation, the birth of the unfortunate term "wardrobe malfunction" and the censoring of everything from Steve Miller's Jet Airliner to network airings of Saving Private Ryan, it's safe to say your little mea culpa came way too late. This incident helped give us YouTube and Vevo, but it removed any hope of escape from the cycle of false outrage we've been mired in since.
— Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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