That wasn't an option for CBS and the National Football League, which worked hard -- very hard -- to conjure a sense of togetherness and normalcy in the coverage, in a mostly polished broadcast that proceeded without a few customary staples, among them a huge crowd.
The Super Bowl attracts millions of viewers who care little about the game itself, showing up for the experience and the ads in what remains media's greatest marketing showcase, with advertisers paying roughly $5.5 million for each 30-second spot. As always, the host network also sought to leverage the millions of eyeballs trained on the TV to promote an array of assets from its parent company, ViacomCBS, foremost among them the streaming service Paramount+. If even a fraction of viewers return, that qualifies as a major win.
So what worked best, and what didn't, in the context of a very unusual Super Bowl? Here are some highlights and lowlights from the game coverage, as well as a few of the pregame moments:
Before Jackie. CBS aired a nifty video, hosted by Viola Davis, about the history of Black players in the NFL, but the real wakeup call was pregame host James Brown's indictment of NFL owners, calling their track record on hiring African-American coaches and front-office management "pitiful." That might not sound like much, but it always takes some guts for a network to call out the NFL, given the value of those football contracts.
Jim Nantz and Tony Romo make it a game. The announcing team did the best they could to keep the focus on the field, after Nantz introduced the telecast by celebrating the idea that "we all unify to watch this game as one." Romo also continued his magic act of identifying trends early and often, including the way penalties were playing an oversized role in the outcome in the early going.
Near the end, Nantz delivered a refreshingly honest appraisal of what viewers just watched. "The game did not live up to the hype," he said.
A message from the Boss. Commercials don't really belong in this conversation, but nothing better addressed the politics of the moment than Jeep's ad featuring Bruce Springsteen, who offered an understated but sobering message regarding unity and common ground. "Fear has never been the best of who we are," Springsteen said poignantly. For some, a commercial might not be the ideal venue to tackle that, but it was the most direct attempt to acknowledge the dark clouds that have swirled over America in the lead-up to the game.
Amanda Gorman scores again. Frankly, there was room for skepticism about the poet -- who dazzled at the presidential inauguration -- being enlisted for the Super Bowl as well, but her ode to essential workers provided the perfect garnish to the pre-kickoff festivities.
The Brady Bunch. Another Super Bowl victory for 43-year-old Tom Brady -- a senior citizen by pro-sports standards -- is a great story, and before the game Nantz called the young-old battle of quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Brady "the ultimate script." Surprisingly, though, the announcers exhibited unexpected restraint for most of the night -- capturing the moment without unduly overplaying it until Brady's latest triumph became inevitable.
The NFL's anti-racism PSA. The NFL delivered a strong public-service announcement regarding its financial commitment to a campaign against systemic racism, but the failure to make any reference to Colin Kaepernick -- the outspoken quarterback who hasn't found a home in the league -- felt like a glaring oversight.
The halftime headache.
The Weeknd's halftime show
was insanely busy visually, in a way that distracted from the music instead of enhancing it. The presentation might have looked better in the stadium, but it was sort of a fun-house-mirror experience on TV, conjuring a sense of what halftime show would look like if avant-garde filmmakers David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick directed one.
Vince Lombardi returns ... for a pep talk. For no particular reason the NFL brought out a creepy-looking computer-generated version of the legendary Green Bay Packers coach to deliver a rousing speech about overcoming adversity. The coach himself would have benched whoever came up the idea.
Studio team fumbles. CBS' studio team had a few notable fumbles, beginning with an unnecessary Nickelodeon-ized version of the halftime highlights. Yes, it was silly, but a case of corporate synergy gone too far. Before the game, there was also an awkward segue from Alicia Keys' powerful performance regarding racial justice to the game itself. "Sports has been used as a platform to move the social needle forward," Brown began, before shifting to a breakdown of the teams. Granted, that's not an easy transition, but it nevertheless felt jarring.
Paramount Minus. ViacomCBS understandably wanted to promote its streaming service, but those climbing-the-mountain spots -- assembling assorted talent from its various channels -- were both too frequent and too irritating. The result made a molehill out of the Paramount mountain.