As embarrassing as it was for the NFL and the city of New Orleans that the power went out for 34 minutes during Super Bowl XLVII, it's not even close to how humiliated CBS should feel.
It's difficult to overstate how much the San Francisco 49ers saved CBS's bacon by constructing such an incredible comeback and putting a positive spin on a massive failure by many, many people, because: That was the worst display of broadcasting I've seen in my entire life. CBS probably would have been better off if it had just kept the screen blank for the whole half hour. We are all stupider for having witnessed it. I spent most of the rest of the third quarter sweeping up all my dead brain cells off the floor.
Obviously, CBS couldn't have anticipated power suddenly going out in the press box, and the mics of Phil Simms and Jim Nantz being shut off -- it's not exactly the type of thing you put together a plan for in prep -- but never has the vapidity of NFL commentators been more painfully in evidence. It is amazing, in the year 2013, that these are the people who are paid to talk live on television. That's their job. Professionally. The blackout, essentially, turned the most watched program in the United States into "Saturday Night Live's" famous "Wake Up and Smile" sketch.
The idiocy and desperation was so unrelenting that I couldn't quite document it all even if I tried. Steve Tasker, the first guy to talk after about 45 seconds of silence, was a stuttering, ghostly, terrified profile in flop sweat. He went from "sideline reporter" to "Wait, the entire planet is looking at me right now?!" in a nanosecond, and it showed. Solomon Wilcots, on the other sideline, kept popping in to tell us he didn't know anything, handily summarizing the job description of sideline reporter without intending to.
But those guys were Jim McKay in Munich compared to the "analyst" desk of dopes. James Brown, who went to freaking Harvard, could do little more than inform fans that we were 15 minutes away from playing every 15 minutes or so. Bill Cowher impersonated a robot incapable of processing any commands that didn't involve introducing football highlights. (At one point, I wondered if he'd even noticed the lights had gone out.) Dan Marino just sort of mumbled, confused, which led, lord help me, Shannon Sharpe to fill the void.
Oh, Shannon. Suffice it to say, I wouldn't expect Sharpe to start showing up at your local Upright Citizens Brigade improv performance anytime soon. He proved himself to be perhaps the worst ad-libber in the history of television. He started off with, "I saw in a surge in the building, and it was the Baltimore Ravens," and it was all downhill from there. (Not that it stopped Sharpe from using that line two more times.) Sharpe just kept talking and talking, until his sentences began to resemble one of those sets of refrigerator magnets that assemble random sequences of words. At one point, I thought he might be gargling.
Meanwhile, as this was all going on, CBS provided us with zero information on what was actually going on, what the NFL was saying, what the coaches felt, what the referees had been advised, hell, what a couple of fans were thinking as they sat in darkness. It was just Tasker, to Wilcots, to Brown, to Sharpe to Sharpe to Sharpe, all of them that yammering on aimlessly as the seconds ticked by on the highest-rated television program of the year.
It was like watching a cable news program fill time while waiting for a public official to start a press conference. Except it went on for half an hour. Except Wolf Blitzer has been on live television without a teleprompter before. Except hundreds of millions of people don't gather together once a year to watch a press conference. For what it's worth, it's not like the coverage got much better once Simms and Nantz were live again; the first thing a disheveled (well, for him) Nantz offered when they returned was a lame joke about Simms shorting out the stadium with his cell phone charger. And neither one of them had the foggiest idea of what was going on either.
How in the world could this have happened? How could CBS -- which pays billions of dollars for this game, like everybody else -- have dropped the ball on the biggest event it covers every three years? Much of this is inherent in the network itself. Typically, CBS is praised for eliminating sideline reporters, but the thing about sideline reporters is that they're reporters. Wilcots and Tasker, analysts and former players both, couldn't go to a league official for a statement because they have no idea how to do that. It was one of their first games as sideline reporters, and they looked as lost as the audience.
I couldn't help but wonder how much better NBC or ESPN would have been with this. They would have at least had a reporter or two hanging around. I guarantee you Michele Tafoya or Sal Paolantonio have at least some information for us there. (Eventually CBS got Tracy Wolfson in front of a camera to tell us which sideline had power and which didn't, anyway.) And, for that matter, Bob Costas and Stuart Scott, for better or worse, would have handled idle chit-chat light years better than Brown did.
But the real issue remains the selection of former athletes, chosen for their Q rating and popularity within the NFL itself, as our television hosts in the first place. I'm not sold on Shannon Sharpe's ability to break down a play any better than Mike Tanier or Chris Brown in the first place, but I know he can't kill time without making America's ears bleed. This is, after all, broadcasting, and CBS, in an unforeseeable circumstance that you sort of nevertheless have to have a backup plan for (this being the Super Bowl and all), was left without its pants on the biggest sports day of the year.
The 49ers saved the network more embarrassment by making a great game of it, changing the media narrative to "the power outage changed the momentum!" rather than "CBS just broadcast the dullest Super Bowl of all time in the most incompetent way imaginable." It could have been a lot worse. But next time CBS broadcasts the Super Bowl, Super Bowl L, on Feb. 7, 2016, I'd recommend they keep some grownup broadcasters hanging around, as backups, just in case. You never know the broadcast will need, well, a professional broadcaster.
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Seriously: CBS should send Colin Kaepernick flowers this morning. Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you're yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you're pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I'll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.