With any luck, the National Football League has gotten this year’s Super Bowl halftime show controversy out of the way early.
Faced with an embarrassing story that the dancers it was seeking as extras for the Rolling Stones performance couldn’t be older than 45, the NFL reversed field and opened it up to everyone. Mick Jagger, 62, may now be able to see wrinkles as he looks out over his audience.
It may seem incidental to the main event, but the halftime show has caused plenty of headaches for the NFL, from Janet Jackson’s infamous breast-baring to some grumbling from host city Detroit that its musical legacy is being snubbed this year. The booking of rock royalty like the Stones — who turned down the gig several times before agreeing this year — is an indication of its importance.
The Feb. 5 show on ABC is being overseen by NFL executive Charles Coplin. He’s a former ABC Sports producer who joined the league’s front office in 2001 and took over the entertainment staff immediately after the 2004 unexpected exposure of Jackson’s nipple jewelry.
That incident, after the NFL had largely handed over production of the show to MTV, persuaded the league to take a tighter grip on the plans, Coplin said.
“The guiding philosophy is to be unique, entertaining and appropriate, to cast entertainment that serves as wide a group as possible — from grandparents to grandkids,” he said.
For several years, halftime entertainment was an afterthought: the Florida A&M University marching band has not one, but two, Super Bowl performances on its resume. The shows gradually expanded, although acts like Up with People defined white bread.
Key years in making it more of an event were Michael Jackson performing with 3,500 children (1993) and U2’s Bono opening his jacket to reveal an American flag stitched in, a few months after the terrorist attacks.
“There was a point in the early 1990s where (the NFL) thought, ‘how can we make something this great even better,”’ Coplin said. “There was a decision internally to look at all aspects of the Super Bowl presentation.”
And yet we watch ...It was another opportunity to make money, too. Sprint paid the NFL a record $12 million to be sponsor of this year’s halftime show, and is running a contest to fly the winners to Detroit to see the Stones up close.
Each year’s TV audience generally approaches 90 million people. Usually only the Academy Awards comes anywhere close in pulling that many people together.
Along with the Oscars — where the world’s best actors read forced patter from cue cards — the Super Bowl halftime show is such a cheesy anachronism that it’s a wonder it made it intact into the 21st century, said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.
“It reminds me of a broadcast of Miss America or Bob Barker on ‘The Price is Right,’ one of those things where nothing seems to change,” he said. “It’s a land that time forgot.”
Yet the way Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction became such a huge story shows the power of the platform, he said.
Is a football league the right entity to put on such an important entertainment show? Coplin said that’s a subjective question. The NFL turns to others — this year veteran awards show and special events producer Don Mischer — to help run things.
“We’re not so myopic to think that we can’t seek outside help,” he said. “And that’s what we do.”
The times the NFL were most burned actually came when it placed too much faith in outside help: MTV, in Jackson’s year, and a company that was hired this year to organize the on-field dancers for the Stones.
“They were very collaborative,” said Joel Gallen, another longtime events producer who ran the 2003 show with Shania Twain and No Doubt. “They are easy to work with and understand the value of entertainment. It’s not like dealing with people who only know football.”
Some people in Detroit were unhappy this year’s show overlooks the area’s musical history — from Motown to Madonna to Eminem. The NFL has booked Stevie Wonder to play before the game and has done halftime tributes to Motown twice in the past 25 years. More often than not, like with Paul McCartney last year, the show has no geographical references.
Aaron Neville, whose home was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, was selected to perform the national anthem in Detroit.
McCartney’s booking was seen by many as a conservative reaction to the Jackson incident. The hiring of acts like Green Day, Destiny’s Child and Ozzy Osbourne for various NFL events since shows that “we’re beyond that,” said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.
The Stones 'get it'It would seem odd to consider the Rolling Stones a conservative choice, considering that during the years that marching bands were on duty at the Super Bowl Jagger was riding a giant inflatable penis onstage and singing “Sympathy For the Devil” with real menace.
The inflatable prop will be kept in storage, of course. And the Stones won’t be performing “Sweet Neo Con,” a song from their new album that seemingly takes swings at President Bush, McCarthy said.
It’s still not certain what the Stones will perform during their 12 minutes onstage, Coplin said. He’s in a delicate position — not wanting to seem like he’s ordering rock legends around, yet also intent on protecting the show’s family-friendly image.
“We have a lot of conversations with them,” he said. “We try and convince them to perform in a way that will make them look great and appreciate the fact that the audience is so large.”
He’s convinced that “they get it,” however.
The stakes are high for the band, too. Sales of McCartney’s catalogue went up 250 percent the week after his Super Bowl show, according to Soundscan, and U2’s most recent album jumped from No. 108 to No. 8 on the Billboard chart after their gig.
“In a world where there are many different opinions and points of view, to try and find entertainment that appeals to as many people as possible is a tough challenge,” Coplin said.