Super Bowl counterprogramming

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Although it is consistently one of the most watched television programs in the United States annually,[1] broadcasters have sometimes attempted to intentionally counterprogram against the Super Bowl by running new programming against the game as an alternative, such as special episodes of existing series, one-off special presentations, and previews of new series, typically during its halftime break.

The most prominent success of the concept came in 1992, when Fox broadcast a special, live edition of its sketch comedy program In Living Color during halftime at Super Bowl XXVI, taking advantage of the then-unpopular format of Super Bowl halftime shows, successfully drawing 22 million viewers, and prompting the NFL to book more prominent pop music acts to compete.

Broadcasters who do not air original programming against the Super Bowl will typically air reruns of existing programming—sometimes as marathons, prior to and during the game; in recent years, as they all broadcast NFL games or have ties to an outlet who does—and three of them alternate airing the game yearly—the United States' four major television networks have rarely broadcast new programming against the Super Bowl in an effort to protect the game's viewership as a sign of respect.


The practice was popularized by Fox: in the 1970s and 1980s, the majority of Super Bowl halftime shows were themed, musical spectacles that often featured marching bands and performance ensembles such as Up with People (who performed in four Super Bowl halftime shows between 1976 and 1986 and performed at the pre-game show of Super Bowl XXV in 1991). The group's halftime shows were described as being "wholesome" and "inoffensive" by critics, but were frequently lambasted for being dated and out of touch with modern popular culture—through this era, halftime shows involving Up With People received heavy critical derision.[2]

As an alternative, the then-fledging (but future NFL broadcaster) Fox aired a special live episode of its popular sketch comedy show In Living Color during halftime at Super Bowl XXVI (which featured a halftime show entitled "Winter Magic", a Winter Olympics-themed show starring Gloria Estefan). The live episode, which featured football-themed sketches and a clock counting down to the start of the third quarter, drew between 20 million and 25 million viewers; Nielsen estimated that CBS lost 10 ratings points during halftime as a result of the special.[3]

The unexpected success of the In Living Color special prompted the NFL to take steps to prevent the further loss of viewers at halftime during future games: beginning at Super Bowl XXVII, the league began to invite major pop music performers to perform during the halftime show. The first of these, featuring Michael Jackson, led to a dramatic increase in viewership between halves—the first in the game's history. This practice continued until 2005; after an incident occurred at Super Bowl XXXVIII's halftime show where Justin Timberlake briefly exposed one of Janet Jackson's breasts, a string of subsequent halftime shows featuring a single, headlining classic rock act were held instead.[4][3] Even still, the league has continued to stay true to its goal of ensuring that the halftime show is as much of a spectacle as the game itself.[2]

As all four major U.S. television networks currently have ties to the NFL and broadcast its games (CBS, Fox, and NBC alternate airing the Super Bowl yearly and air regular season games, and ABC's parent company owns ESPN, who also broadcasts regular season NFL games, and will simulcast its wildcard playoff game on ABC beginning in 2016),[5] Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Tribune believed that there was now "zero likelihood some broadcast network is going to launch a broadside against the NFL's showcase." As such, the networks not airing the game will typically air reruns.[3] Fox provided an exception in 2010, when it aired new episodes of 'Til Death during the game—however, this move was part of Fox's efforts to quietly burn off the series in unconventional time slots (such as having aired a marathon of four new episodes on Christmas Day), to compile enough episodes for syndication.[6][7]

Counterprogramming efforts are not limited to television; for Super Bowl XLV in 2011, WCHK-FM, a station in the Green Bay, Wisconsin area announced it would counterprogram the game with dead air, since the hometown Packers were in the game. However, its goal was not to attract listeners from the game, but to do the opposite.[8] The freeform program Anything Anything with Rich Russo has counterprogrammed the Super Bowl with Dr. Demento.[9] Counterprogramming expanded to the internet in 2015, when YouTube announced that it would broadcast an alternative, online halftime show featuring notable personalities from the video sharing service.[10]

List of notable Super Bowl halftime counterprograms[edit]

In regards to original programming, recurring Super Bowl counters have included Animal Planet's annual Puppy Bowl, a special featuring dogs at play in a model football stadium (which itself spawned imitators in the form of the Kitten Bowl and Fish Bowl in 2014), and the Lingerie Bowl, a series of pay-per-view broadcasts of all-female football games played in lingerie—proving popular enough to be spun off into its own Lingerie Football League. The LFL has since re-launched as a more conventional women's football league, the Legends Football League, and moved its season to run during the NFL off-season instead.[11]

On the day of the Super Bowl, cable channels often air special marathons of existing programming prior to and/or during the game: in 2009, AMC aired the first three Death Wish films, DIY Network broadcast a marathon of bathroom-related programming known as the "Toilet Bowl", and ESPN aired a marathon of the World Series of Poker.[12]

Super Bowl Year Outlet Program Notes
XXVI 1992 Fox In Living Color "Doritos Zaptime/In Living Color Super Halftime Party"[13][3]
XXVIII 1994 MTV Beavis and Butt-head "Butt Bowl I"
XXIX 1995 MTV Beavis and Butt-head "Butt Bowl II"
XXX 1996 MTV Beavis and Butt-head "Butt Bowl III"
XXXI 1997 MTV Beavis and Butt-head "Butt Bowl IV"[14]
XXXII 1998 MTV Celebrity Deathmatch '98 Howard Stern vs. Kathie Lee Gifford; Pamela Anderson Lee vs. RuPaul; Hanson vs. The Spice Girls.
XXXIII 1999 USA WWF Sunday Night Heat "Halftime Heat": Empty arena match between The Rock and Mankind.[15]
XXXVI 2002 NBC Saturday Night Live Weekend Update with Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey[13]
XXXVII 2003 NBC Fear Factor Playboy Playmates edition; 11.4 million viewers[13]
XXXVIII 2004 PPV Lingerie Bowl
XXXIX 2005 PPV Girls Gone Wild "Halftime Games"
Animal Planet Puppy Bowl[13][16]
XL 2006 Animal Planet Puppy Bowl II[13][16]
PPV Lingerie Bowl II
XLI 2007 Animal Planet Puppy Bowl III[13][16]
Fuse Pants-Off Dance-Off "Pancer Bowl I", featuring women stripping football clothing to the music of Super Bowl halftime performer Prince.[17][18]
Hallmark Channel From the Heart: Favorite Commercials from Hallmark Cards Aired during a marathon of Little House on the Prairie[17]
PPV Lingerie Bowl III
PPV Howard Stern's Stupid Bowl III A flag football game between the staff of The Howard Stern Show and a group of drag queens.[19]
XLII 2008 Animal Planet Puppy Bowl IV[13][16][20]
PPV Lingerie Bowl IV
Spike Major League Eating Chowdown[20] Ham 'n Eggs
Oxygen Deion & Pilar: Prime Time Love A preview of the then-upcoming series was aired against the halftime show during a marathon of Snapped.[21]
XLIII 2009 ABC Wipeout "Wipeout Bowl", Cheerleaders vs. Couch Potatoes. A segment of the episode was aired during the halftime show, with a full episode airing at 10:00 p.m. ET (thus also counterprogramming the conclusion of the game and its lead-out program).[22][12]
Animal Planet Puppy Bowl V
XLIV 2010 Animal Planet Puppy Bowl VI
Fox 'Til Death The fourth season of 'Til Death was produced solely so it could be burned off by Fox, as its distributor would then have enough episodes to syndicate the low-rated sitcom. With 1.7 million viewers, Fox finished third behind the Super Bowl itself and a rerun of America's Funniest Home Videos in the 7:00 p.m. hour.[7][6]
XLV 2011 Animal Planet Puppy Bowl VII Seen by 9.2 million viewers across all of its airings throughout the day.[23]
PPV Lingerie Bowl VIII
XLVI 2012 Animal Planet Puppy Bowl VIII Seen by a total of over 10 million viewers, and was the 2nd most popular program of the day on social media behind the Super Bowl itself.[24]
XLVII 2013 Animal Planet Puppy Bowl IX[24]
XLVIII 2014 Animal Planet Puppy Bowl X[25]
Hallmark Channel Kitten Bowl As a feline parallel to the Puppy Bowl, the broadcast consisted of kittens at play[26]
Nat Geo Wild Fish Bowl Similarly to the Puppy Bowl, the 4-hour broadcast consisted purely of a goldfish in a bowl.[27] [28]
XLIX 2015 Animal Planet Puppy Bowl XI[29]
YouTube YouTube Halftime Show Co-produced by Collective Digital Studio and hosted by Epic Meal Time‍ '​s Harley Morenstein, the special featured contributions by twenty YouTube "creators and musicians", and served to promote the site's AdBlitz channel.[30][10]
Hallmark Channel Kitten Bowl II All of the participating kittens were named in reference to NFL players and officials.[31]


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