Clint Eastwood's patriotic pep talk about "halftime in America" might just as well have applied to NBC.
The languishing, fourth-place network, owned by Comcast Corp., needed more than a touchdown from Sunday's Super Bowl broadcast — that much was assured with a marquee rematch between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots. No, NBC needed to kick-start its own second half.
It had little to complain about, getting an increasingly riveting game that came down to the final play, a buzzed-about halftime show with Madonna and no notable flub (except for a middle finger from singer M.I.A. that slipped past censors) that interfered with a solid, well-produced broadcast of the game.
But it will surely take more than Eli Manning's heroics to rescue NBC primetime.
The cross-promotion had an almost desperate feel, as if some NBC executive had wagered his life on the audience awareness score of the network's two biggest hopes: the reality singing competition "The Voice" (which was given the plush postgame time slot to premiere its second season) and the Steven Spielberg-produced drama "Smash" (which premieres Monday, after, naturally, another two hours of "The Voice").
"It's hard to believe this is the last Super Bowl in the pre-Smash era," tweeted Seth Meyers of NBC's "Saturday Night Live."
But in between ads for "Smash," the Patriots and Giants played a closely contested game before Manning and Tom Coughlin yet again defeated Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, as they did four years ago in Super Bowl XLII.
Since then, the television landscape has changed, as was evidenced by Sunday's broadcast. In a first, it was streamed live online on both NFL.com and NBCSports.com. The feed was a sure forerunner to more streaming sports, but was rudimentary, with variable camera angles, slight social media integration and about a 30-second delay.
On TV, the echoes of Super Bowl XLII were sometimes eerie, and play-by-play team Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth didn't miss any chance to compare the two games.
"Wow," said Collinsworth as the teams vied in the tense fourth quarter. "We should just have these teams play all the time."
Michaels, not missing a beat to promote NBC's "Sunday Night Football," added: "On Sunday night."
That both Giants wins were enabled by remarkable receptions — earlier by David Tyree against his helmet, Sunday by Mario Manningham on the sideline — was fittingly cited. At another moment, when Brady eluded a pass rush and then heaved an interception, Collinsworth, recalling Manning's disappearing act four years ago, said it was "like the opposite of the last Super Bowl."
In his second Super Bowl but first for NBC, Collinsworth, the former Cincinnati Bengal and longtime dispenser of no-nonsense, offered proof that he's the best color man in the business. He was most at home in the biggest moments, when commentators are most needed.
Before the thrilling final drives, the game at times seemed oddly lacking mojo. Was it the lack of Tebowing? The missing cutaways to Peyton Manning?
The broadcast was led by NBC's "Sunday Night Football" crew and overseen by producer Fred Gaudelli and director Drew Esocoff. An audience anticipated to top 100 million (last year's drew a record 111 million average viewers) helped NBC sell $250 million in advertising, with 30-second commercials going for as much as $3.5 million.
With such high stakes, NBC spared no expense, following the action with some 40 cameras. The usual, bloated six-hour-long pregame show preceded the game, anchored by Bob Costas and Dan Patrick.
Though there was plenty of the usual hype that accompanies the Super Bowl, NBC's broadcast benefitted from its stable of respected personalities, all of whom are generally pomp-resistant. Costas and Patrick keep perspective tempered in their own way: Costas, earnestly journalistic; Patrick, sardonically skeptical.
Their presences were needed in the pregame, an annual bit of programming excess that does little more than give Super Bowl parties a background image and supply TV critics with something to bemoan.
Costas earned the Nostradamus award for his interview with Brady, in which he asked the quarterback if he'd rather be up with a few minutes to go and be in the sideline, or be down with the ball. Brady answered the latter, but after seeing his Hail Mary fall the ground, he might want to reconsider.
While NBC kept the festivities closer to the game than some, it still offered the cringe-inducing "Super Suite" red carpet show. Singer and actor Nick Cannon awkwardly and superficially interviewed celebrities such as Adam Sandler and Katharine McPhee, the star of "Smash." McPhee hit a low point by trying to force a comparison of her character to a young Brady.
Few of NBC's stars didn't make cameos of some kind, from Brian Williams to "30 Rock" sketches. NBC also hyped its new NBC Sports Network, as well as its coming coverage of the 2012 Olympics in London.
Sometimes, the feature profiles felt very much like an NBC Olympics broadcast.
One highlight was Peter King's heart-rending report on former New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Thankfully, King didn't shy away from considering the link between brain disease and football, a topic that didn't come up in the game broadcast.
Pittsburgh Steeler Hines Ward and Green Bay Packer Aaron Rodgers joined regular NBC analysts Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison, but it was the former Patriot, Harrison, who stood out. Harrison is an odd combination of candid and cocky that improves on often too-soft studio vibe.
The nearing of the game (finally!) was also matched by a deeper dive into commercialism as the primetime ads geared up. Aside from the normal animal tricks and male chauvinism, the spots struck a tone of recession-minded nostalgia.
Budweiser reflected on the end of prohibition, General Electric touted its old-fashioned manufacturing with its "G.E. works" campaign, and even "Star Wars" returned in a Volkswagen ad and a trailer for a new 3-D release. When Eastwood gravely intoned about America's second half for Chrysler, some wondered if he was hocking cars or running for president.
There were touches of reminiscing, too, in the seemingly lip-synced halftime performance of Madonna, pop royalty at 53.
It was during moments like those that it was clear that no number of NBC commentators could match those on Twitter. The social media stream of real-time conversation is now as much a part of Super Sunday as nachos and chicken wings.