CBS Lambasted for Its Handling of Super Bowl Blackout

Feb 6, 2013  •  Post A Comment

CBS has come under fire for its handling of the blackout that disrupted Sunday’s Super Bowl for 34 minutes, with one of the most scathing attacks coming from The New Yorker’s Steve Coll.

Coll notes that when the blackout first occurred, some viewers probably wondered whether a terrorist attack was under way.

“The initial period of the blackout was especially unsettling,” Coll writes. “It was like a nationally shared, television-enhanced experience of a stroke. CBS, this year’s Super Bowl broadcaster, maintained its visual signal, but the network initially lost audio. The broadcast’s director selected a field-level camera angle that pointed up to the half-darkened stadium lights, in a mute effort to show what was going on. Yet, without the benefit of commentary, viewers could only guess at what had transpired.”

The article suggests that CBS, a network with a proud history in TV journalism, should have recognized the incident for what it was: breaking news, which needed to be covered.

“Surely, I thought upon my couch, CBS, the network of Eric Sevareid, Dan Rather, and ‘60 Minutes’ — the network that had lately recruited Charlie Rose to anchor its morning show — would tear into this story,” Coll writes. “It did not. What followed was embarrassing and irresponsible.”

Coll writes that CBS should have turned over the telecast to its news division, but chose instead to have its sports team try to fill the dead air.

“CBS acted as if it possessed no news division,” Coll writes. “It relied on James Brown, the congenial jock-wrangling anchor of ‘The NFL Today,’ to handle the story. He and his fellow commentators — retired quarterback Dan Marino, retired NFL coach Bill Cowher, and retired tight end Shannon Sharpe — acted as if the unexplained loss of electricity in a stadium filled with seventy thousand-plus people during the most-watched American television event of the year was just a twist in the story of who would win the football game, and nothing more.”

The piece points most of the blame at CBS’s president and CEO, Les Moonves.

“Why didn’t he throw the broadcast to his news division in New York for at least an interval, to signal to viewers that the network recognized that something unusual and newsworthy had just occurred, and to attempt to inform them, as best as possible, with reliable reporting?” Coll writes.

“Moonves told the Times that he knew he had the option to switch to CBS News in New York, but ‘we were told it would be twenty minutes. … We knew it wouldn’t be down for hours.’ Even so, why did CBS not immediately scramble its news producers to hunt down subjects for on-air interviews? Why was there no off-air reporting relayed from CBS News to James Brown about whether there was any indication of foul play, or any information at all available beyond the no-commenting, self-protecting public-relations arm of the NFL juggernaut, to which we have become all too accustomed during its systematic campaign of denial about football-related concussions?”

We recommend clicking here to read the rest of Coll’s comments.

6 Comments

  1. If only Steve Coll was running CBS he’d know how to handle any situation. Call him Captain Hindsight.

  2. Remember the disastrous San Francisco earthquake that occurred in the 80s at the start of a world series game? ABC was telecasting that game live, and the 15 cameras and numerous “sportscaster” boots-on-the-ground covered that earthquake like paint over the first several hours, and scooped the heck out of the other networks which were left trying to figure out what was going on–from their studios in New York!! Why in the world would the CBS management have wanted to switch back there??!! The CBS sports staff did a fine job giving all the news that was available during that 34 minutes. They showed (and mentioned) that half the lights were still on, and the dark ones were beginning to cycle back on. They mentioned that there was no panic and no visible reason to fear according to their observations as well as the officials on the scene–who also explained that the Entergy power company feed had failed from one of two major switching terminals–which had not been destroyed or visibly damaged. It was the fact that ABC was in that same situation in a real disaster and did NOT switch back to New York that was widely credited with their ascendancy to the top of the network news game at exactly that point in time. Hey Les, don’t you just love it when magazine writers critique television news?

  3. Coll brings out questions that crossed my mind throughout the blackout.
    Having worked with, and for, both CBS Sports and CBS News, several scenarios came to mind.
    My guess is that the main sports broadcast booth where Jim Nance was calling the game lost power and, therefore any audio equipment plugged in there went dead. Thus he was not capable to react verbally to the blackout.
    That CBS appeared on air like a deer caught in your headlights truly surprised me. Surely New York based news personnel could, or should, have come on and narrated what was happening and received input from CBS News-Sports personnel at the scene until New Orleans based staffers were able to resume control.
    The fact of the matter is, (and thankfully it was not), the power outage could have been part of a terrible plot.
    Considering all the contingency plans exercised by Federal, State and Local authorities, in the event of trouble, the network was caught totally unprepared.
    Knowing the great people at Sports and News, I was very surprised they weren’t ready with their own plans for, “What if”.
    Peter Bright

  4. And if CBS had jumped to their news team, the critics would now be criticizing them for making too big of an issue out of a partial blackout. There is no winning when you have a world of day-after critics waiting for a chance.

  5. I can’t believe we’re still talking about this! Power went out and everyone did their best in a totally unknown situation. Would power come back in a minute? Who knew how long for the first 10 minutes. This was uncharted territory for any network. But no one was hurt, it was only 30 something minutes and the outcome of the game wasn’t affected. Let the NFL, City of New Orleans and the power company investigate this and come up with a solution. I’m moving on with my my life. Game over, my team lost, great contest, funny commercials… now let’s turn the page…

  6. I agree with the “Captain Hindsight” observation and think that what CBS did was fine. The news division need not blow a power outage into a “possible terrorist attack”. I was watching on my DVR about an hour delayed so I FF through the wait, opened another beer and enjoyed the rest of the game.

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