NEW YORK -- With expectations of a television ratings bonanza, FOX played it safe with Super Bowl XLV.
The network hoped its broadcast of Sunday's clash between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers -- two of the NFL's most storied franchises -- would be enough to overtake last year's Super Bowl broadcast by CBS. Some 106.5 million tuned in last February, finally unseating the 1983 finale of "M-A-S-H" as the most-watched program ever.
In Sunday's riveting game, won 31-25 by the Packers, announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman generally eschewed awkward topics such as concussions and labor strife, instead presenting the action with straightforward bombast.
The comeback by the Steelers, down 21-3 at one point, likely helped viewer retention, a key factor in Super Bowl broadcasts. Football, long a moneymaking machine for TV networks, has been rising. The league's average ratings were up 13 percent from last year, and the price of 30-second commercials to this year's Super Bowl went higher than $3 million.
Aikman, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and a Pro Football Hall of Famer, has never been a particularly opinionated analyst, but he relies on his state-the-obvious good sense. When Buck in the second quarter summarized the offseason allegation of sexual assault against Roethlisberger (with real newspaper headlines in sanitizing, fake graphics), Aikman didn't take the bait, simply adding: "He's put up some pretty good numbers in his career."
FOX gave the issue the most attention in a Roethlisberger interview by Steelers great and current commentator Terry Bradshaw, part of the 6½-hour pre-game coverage. Bradshaw had previously been a vocal critic of Roethlisberger's off-the-field actions, but Sunday's segment was largely a peace offering to highlight the "new" Roethlisberger. Bradshaw concluded it by telling Roethlisberger that it's "important that I have a relationship with you."
Calling a game to such a broad audience is a difficult balancing act, and one at which Buck and Aikman succeeded. They did, though, miss opportunities to delve into some of the biggest themes from the season.
Concussions and illegal hits could have been more of a topic, especially with Steelers linebacker James Harrison having been a central player in the story line all season. The steady stream of injuries in the first half also didn't elicit any mention of the NFL and union debate over extending the season to 18 games.
The game's first play review didn't come until the third quarter, when FOX was able to make use of its most notable addition in the 2010-2011 season: rules analyst Mike Pereira, former vice president of NFL officiating.
Pereira functions as a kind of football forensics expert, detailing every tiny variable of disputed plays, turning a game into an episode of "CSI."
There weren't many contrasts for FOX to exploit: Both teams come from blue-collar cities, play aggressive defense and even share yellow as a uniform color. Instead, the dichotomy was more between the gritty teams and the surroundings: Jerry Jones' state-of-the-art $1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Many of the surrounding elements of the gargantuan production were weak. Christina Aguilera flubbed the national anthem, the Black Eyed Peas' halftime act was easy to mock and even the commercials seemed sub par.
The pregame coverage (which really only serves as a background yule log to Super Bowl parties) wasn't the usual bobblehead yuck fest that it is when Curt Menefee, Howie Long, Michael Strahan, Jimmy Johnson and Bradshaw gather on Sundays. Comedian Frank Caliendo, a poor man's Jay Leno, gave the broadcast its most questionable segment, performing an impression of Charles Barkley in black face.
FOX News' Bill O'Reilly interviewed President Barack Obama, pointedly asking him about the uprising in Egypt and Republican efforts to overturn the health care legislation. This interaction with FOX News went smoother for the president, who has sometimes quarreled with the outlet.
Of course, the Super Bowl also now comes with an enormous online commentary, with many viewers tweeting and sharing the experience on social media. The writers of CBS's "Late Show" even promoted their continuous comedic observations on Twitter.
Many, though, wanted to chat about another game: Animal Planet's annual "Puppy Bowl."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press