About two hours into the Super Bowl--or, put another way, more than six hours into Fox's coverage if you include the "All-Madden Team" special, three-hour pregame show, actual game and postgame festivities--the rock band U2 will take the stage in the New Orleans Superdome for a three-song concert.
The Super Bowl is the kind of blockbuster event (an average 84.3 million viewers tuned in last year) that usually has rival network chiefs quietly conceding defeat for a day. In addition to U2 at halftime, Fox has loaded up its coverage with superstar acts, including troubled pop diva Mariah Carey singing the national anthem.
But NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker thinks--no, he knows--he's got something that'll temporarily prompt coveted young male viewers to change the channel: Playboy Playmates.
While U2 is moving through its hit songs, NBC will offer buxom centerfolds on a special edition of the network's unscripted stunt show "Fear Factor." The first 23 minutes will air during halftime, Zucker said--around 4:45 p.m. locally--while the rest of the episode will air after the game, at 10 p.m. Eastern time and 7 p.m. on the West Coast, opposite a post-Super Bowl episode of the Fox sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle."
"Fear Factor" debuted last summer in an attempt to attract the audience watching alternative formats such as CBS' "Survivor." While the show hasn't nearly reached "Survivor"-like heights in popularity, it has become a valuable weapon for NBC Monday nights at 8, most especially among young males, a demographic advertisers target. Each show has six contestants competing for money by enduring extreme situations (i.e. eating buffalo testicles, bobbing for plums in a vat of snakes, standing on the wing of an airplane).
The edition of "Fear Factor" airing Sunday is being chopped up specifically to steal away men during halftime of the game, offering a portion of the football crowd what it presumably can't get during a populist broadcast like the Super Bowl. To wit: big-breasted women, wearing an assortment of clothing under odd circumstances.
Though Zucker told a gathering of reporters last month that at least one stunt "involves water," the truncated halftime installment will more prominently feature the Playmates walking on a tightrope between two tall buildings, he said.
"You don't get the full value of the Playmates in the first stunt. The full value of the Playmates is in the third stunt," said Zucker, who at times has appeared to enjoy the hostility "Fear Factor" has generated, with some critics saying the network's brand is being sullied by such programming. But Zucker said NBC already had the Playmates lined up for the network's game show, "Weakest Link," when his staff saw an opening to grab eyeballs during a lull in the game. And hey, buzz is buzz.
Beyond the network strategies on display is a question of sociology. Does the average football fan, already a little bleary-eyed from the game and stoked on beer and carbohydrates, want to watch a popular music act at halftime or Playmates?
That question, said Daniel Kellison, co-creator and executive producer of Comedy Central's "The Man Show," is "a no-brainer."
"Ultimately what NBC has done is a form of evil genius," said Kellison, whose 4-year-old show, hosted by comedians Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla, is an intentionally sophomoric bacchanal for the beer-drinking regular guy, adolescent and otherwise (each "Man Show" episode ends with footage of "girls on trampolines").
Super Bowl Sunday, Kellison noted, "is the most primal day of the year for men. They're drinking, they don't have to think, they go back to their caveman roots.... At halftime, they're not going to want to watch Barry Manilow or U2 or anyone. They're going to want to watch girls in bikinis, struggling through some sort of [situation]."
Told the Playmates would be walking on a tightrope, Kellison thought Playmates Jell-O wrestling would be a better idea.
NBC's halftime strategy, it should be said, is not new. It was actually initiated by Fox, which aired a live episode of its popular sketch comedy series "In Living Color" versus halftime of the 1992 Super Bowl. In subsequent years, MTV did special halftime installments of popular programs including "Beavis and Butt-head" and "Celebrity Death Match"; meanwhile, the Super Bowl countered with blockbuster concerts, featuring Aerosmith and Britney Spears.
For Fox, getting U2 this year is a bit of a coup, since the band is enjoying a resurgence with its album "All That You Can't Leave Behind," and possesses a fan base that spans generations.
But no matter how awesome the act, Kellison--apparently speaking for a certain segment of the male population--feels this Super Bowl tradition needs to go.
"It's so bizarre to throw a big, showy production number in the middle of the most masculine event of the year," he said. "Thank God Barbra Streisand is retired."