The first human response to such an unexpected disruption (the 35-minute blackout) of a ritualized social experience like Super Bowl–watching is disorientation and unease. The brain of a journalist quickly jolts into a second response: breaking news! Surely, I thought upon my couch, CBS, the network of Eric Sevareid, Dan Rather, and “60 Minutes”—the network that had lately recruited Charlie Rose to anchor its morning show—would tear into this story.
It did not. What followed was embarrassing and irresponsible. The blackout lasted thirty-four minutes. During that time, CBS acted as if it possessed no news division. It relied on James Brown, the congenial jock-wrangling anchor of “The NFL Today,” to handle the story. He and his fellow commentators—retired quarterback Dan Marino, retired N.F.L. coach Bill Cowher, and retired tight end Shannon Sharpe—acted as if the unexplained loss of electricity in a stadium filled with seventy thousand-plus people during the most-watched American television event of the year was just a twist in the story of who would win the football game, and nothing more.
Surely there were other questions to ask as the minutes ticked by: Why did the N.F.L. fail, throughout the entire interruption, to provide an informed spokesman to explain the problem and the plan to fix it? Who was responsible for the stadium’s operations? What did the local utility, Entergy, have to say? Could the mayor of New Orleans, who was surely in the stadium, be summoned on camera?
“We were asking everybody at every position what was happening and the fact of the matter is we just didn’t know,” Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, told the Los Angeles Times afterward. In retrospect, McManus said, he would have pushed harder to force the N.F.L. to put a representative on camera.
The ultimate responsibility for the broadcast belonged to Les Moonves, the president and chief executive of CBS. Moonves spent the run up to the big game talking to reporters about how many thirty-second ads CBS had sold at record four-million-dollar prices.
Why didn’t he throw the broadcast to his news division in New York for at least an interval, to signal to viewers that the network recognized that something unusual and newsworthy had just occurred, and to attempt to inform them, as best as possible, with reliable reporting?
Moonves told the Times that he knew he had the option to switch to CBS News in New York, but “we were told it would be twenty minutes.…We knew it wouldn’t be down for hours.” Even so, why did CBS not immediately scramble its news producers to hunt down subjects for on-air interviews? Why was there no off-air reporting relayed from CBS News to James Brown about whether there was any indication of foul play, or any information at all available beyond the no-commenting, self-protecting public-relations arm of the N.F.L. juggernaut, to which we have become all too accustomed during its systematic campaign of denial about football-related concussions?
The New Yorker, “The Super Bowl’s Blackout Malfunction.”
Students and practitioners of journalism: this is a great read, and perhaps the most sobering analysis of the events of Sunday evening.
While we were all having fun at the expense of the NFL and its embarrassing power outage, an entire TV news division — Hell, an entire television network — failed to communicate. ”The network of Edward R. Murrow,” the article states, “had no plan for the unexpected.” And that’s a problem.
CBS is on Tumblr and we’d love to hear their take on the matter.