If you're actually paying more attention to football and not the Super Bowl commercials on Sunday, you'll be getting the best TV announcing crew of the 2011 NFL season.
The bonus of NBC coverage – no, not Bob Costas's hair colour – will be the team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth calling the shots from the booth.
The two conference championship games on CBS and FOX on Jan. 21 might have been the worst-called major sporting events by network crews. Missed calls, no insight and a general haste to jam in network promos made the CBS team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms almost unwatchable/unlistenable. On FOX, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were only marginally better. (When you yell, "Can't you see that?" at the TV more than five times a game, the network has a problem.)
Michaels is the Maserati of play-by-play guys. There's no creepy Buck/Aikman welcome-to-the-booth/boys-in-the-tree-house feel when the veteran calls a game. He modulates, knows when to get excited and when to shut up. If you play a favourite sports moment back in your head, it's probably Michaels's voice you hear, whether he called the game or not.
Collinsworth can get a little verbose, but, as opposed to Aikman or Simms, his patois seems real and his homework is generally impeccable. He passes the test as the "guy you'd like to have a beer with and watch the game." Granted, NBC only had Sunday nights to call this NFL season, unopposed by other games, but they were the unquestioned leaders in the field.
In addition, NBC has the best sideline reporter in Michele Tafoya, a terrific studio host in Dan Patrick, a capable analyst in former New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison … and we're looking for something nice to say about analyst/former coach Tony Dungy, but words fail.
SELL SELL SELL
It's too bad AMC's Mad Men, about 1960s Madison Avenue, won't get the chance to tackle the Super Bowl file. The marketing opportunities of the title game only gained traction in the 1970s, rising to the fever pitch the NFL now enjoys.
The event began in 1967 as a football game, but that was too simple a brief for the marketing men like Don Draper. Now, the game is subsumed by a marketing monolith where commercials and promotion are the headline performers. The Patriots and New York Giants this weekend will be a warm-up act for massive product branding. (Look out below, Naomi Klein.)
Using satellite radio, one could follow the blunt marketing behemoth as it marched its spokesmen through a production line of programs and networks this week. Story angles were shoved aside in place of former football worthies thinly disguised as hucksters for a branded product looking to use the Super Bowl as a springboard.
ESPN, the mighty American all-sports cable channel, didn't even bother to disguise the product placement, running players such as Brett Keisel, a spokesman for Head & Shoulders, through every one of its programs in sequence through the day. (ESPN folk call this the "car wash.")
Keisel has played in Super Bowls for the Pittsburgh Steelers but he was principally on air to flog shampoo, shepherded from show to show by a minder as he talked about his famous beard and its appearance in a TV ad.
And so it goes with America's biggest shill-fest. It's the pigskin version of Las Vegas, as brands are leveraged to the hilt in a virtual supermarket. Even 50-ish singer Madonna, former iconoclast, goes corporate this weekend as she performs at halftime. (Most NFL owners are geezers in their 80s and 90s, so Madonna is probably a hip young thing by their standard.)
What helped to turn this corporate tide was the advent of the Super Bowl commercial.
Mad Men-like efforts of the past are now as fondly remembered as touchdown throws and missed field goals in Super Bowl lore. Perhaps the Olduvai Gorge moment featured Steelers defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene in 1980 shilling for Coca-Cola, tossing his soiled jersey to a tow-headed waif.
Because anything worth doing in commercials is worth ruining, Mean Joe is back this year, flogging for Downy fabric softener with comedian Amy Sedaris in a piece so brazen you have to admire its chutzpah.
Already this week, we've had other lengthy glimpses of commercials that will run Sunday. Both the Honda and Acura commercials are, like the Mean Joe spot, retro efforts as actor Matthew Broderick pillages his Ferris Bueller's Day Off legacy while comedian Jerry Seinfeld rummages up his "Soup Nazi" past to move a few cars (the cameo by The Tonight Show host Jay Leno is the funniest he's been in 20 years).
There will be plenty more, many of which Canadians, in another Super Bowl tradition, will not see as host broadcaster CTV inserts its own commercials.
For those living near a American-border city, you can watch the U.S. feed on bunny ears, but for the rest of us huddled north of the frontier, it will be Internet peeks or waiting till Monday to see what the shilling fun was about.
Why we should feel compelled to break CRTC regulations to see TV commercials is a question for deeper thinkers than Usual Suspects. But stolen fruit – even stolen retro hucksterism – still tastes sweeter.