Super-Sized Super Bowl

XLII may be the biggest game of all—and Fox is looking to cash in
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Get ready for a super-sized Super Bowl.

All the elements are in place to make the biggest show of the year even bigger—and maybe even live up to the hype.

The television industry—and public—couldn't be more starved for such an appointment viewing event. Already reeling from fragmentation and rampant ad-skipping, the TV season has been further decimated by the Writers Guild of America strike.

But the 42nd Super Bowl matchup on Feb. 3 seems destined to be one of the most profitable—if not most watched—in recent memory. And no one is in a better position to leverage field conditions than News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch. Fox, in the midst of a six-year, $4.3 billion deal for the NFL, has the good luck to be up in the Super Bowl rotation when the undefeated New England Patriots face the underdog New York Giants, one of the home teams of the biggest TV market in the country.

This year, the network is throwing overkill to the wind, loading up on Fox-branded programming from the early morning through the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy and beyond. The Super Bowl comes two days before Super Tuesday—when an unprecedented 24 states will hold caucuses or primaries—so Fox News Channel will get the 9 a.m.-to-noon block for special programming that marries the bruising sports of football and politics.

At 2 p.m., the network will give glam-starved viewers a celebrity fix, while also showcasing talent from American Idol. (The show is down 11% from its premiere a year ago, but is still TV's most popular show and insulated from the damaging WGA strike.) Idol's Ryan Seacrest will preside over the network's first-ever Super Bowl red carpet, with judges Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson on hand. Abdul will give a rare musical performance. And Jordin Sparks, last year's Idol winner, will sing the national anthem. Kickoff of the game itself is scheduled for around 6:30 p.m.

“We know for a fact that the hard-core football fan watches our show every Sunday,” says David Hill, chairman of Fox Sports. “But there's going to be a whole bunch of people watching the show who are not football fanatics but who are fascinated with the whole culture of the Super Bowl. There's going to be a party atmosphere and people are going to watch it multigenerationally. So what we're trying to do is appeal to that audience as well as the hard-core football fan.”

For advertisers, the Super Bowl presents a DVR-proof opportunity. With the ads generating as much buzz as the game, companies use the enormous platform to launch marketing campaigns with artfully constructed mini-movies.

This year, Unilever will attempt to mimic the buzz it achieved with its Dove Evolution ad, unveiled during the 2006 Super Bowl, with a new campaign for SunSilk hair-care products that features Shakira, Madonna and Marilyn Monroe in Warholian animation.

Victoria's Secret, which hasn't advertised on the Super Bowl since 1999, will kick off its all-important Valentine's Day marketing blitz with an ad on the male-heavy telecast. Coca-Cola and Kraft also will return this year after a 10-year absence.

“The Super Bowl is the one sure gigantic rated [event] that will happen [as opposed to the Oscars, which might not],” says Gary Carr, senior VP and director of broadcast services at TargetCast TCM. “That's why you're seeing some of the 'unlikelies' popping up.”

The game will feature ads from the usual suspects, including Pepsi, Frito-Lay's Doritos, Toyota and Anheuser-Busch, the game's top advertiser with eight spots for Budweiser and Bud Light, the official beers of the Super Bowl through 2012.

Websites Cars.com, Salesgenie.com and CareerBuilder.com, which launched its Survivor parody ads during last year's game, will reappear. And GPS company Garmin, the object of much derision for its Maposaurus ad last year, is also returning.

Fox unloaded virtually all of its national ad time for the Super Bowl more than two months ago—averaging $2.7 million with a top of $3 million for a 30-second spot, say ad buyers. (At presstime, the network had one 30-second spot left, which it was hoping to unload for north of $3 million, according to sources.)

Super Bowl buys are not always a sure thing for broadcasters. Marketers must weigh not only the high cost of booking and creating commercials, but also the lacerating post-game scrutiny.

Last year, CBS still had several national spots left by mid-January. The average price for 30-second spots stagnated at $2.2 million for three years between 2000 and 2002 and started to climb again in 2003, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus. After reaching $2.5 million in 2006, the price fell back to just under $2.4 million in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

By comparison, Fox commands $762,000 for an American Idol spot and an average of $143,000 for other primetime fare, according to TNS.

With a dearth of hit shows this season, and teams from two of the biggest markets in the U.S. (New York is No. 1; Boston is at No. 7), there's little wonder prices are inflated. “There is going to be huge national interest in this year's Super Bowl,” says Steve Kalb, senior VP and director of broadcast media at Mullen. “There are two big markets involved. I think football has been a huge story and people are craving fresh programming.”

Indeed, the New York Giants' overtime win against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game on Jan. 20 was watched by more than 48 million people, the biggest non-Super Bowl audience for a game in more than a decade. Before the Giants' win, local spots for the Super Bowl were already selling for approximately $300,000 for 30 seconds. Now, they're going for $500,000.

“We had units left, but it ups the ante on the remaining units,” says Lew Leone, VP and GM of Fox O&O's WNYW (which will carry the game) and WWOR.

Boston's WFXT is unloading spots to the tune of $250,000, a 30% jump from the Patriots' last Bowl appearance two years ago.

Last year, the cost of local market 30-second spots in New York and Chicago—the No. 2 market—was $313,000 and $314,000, respectively, according to TNS. (The Chicago Bears were in the Super Bowl last year, which inflated prices in the Windy City.)

The intense national spotlight will give News Corp. the opportunity to expose a wide swath of viewers to Fox News Channel programming. Fox owned-and-operated stations and affiliates in close to 90% of the country will carry the Fox Super Sunday news block. Executives hope that the typically higher HUT (Homes Using Television) levels on game day will give the Fox News team a chance to shine during a particularly competitive news cycle.

“It is an industry of hits, and when you got 'em, you gotta take advantage of them. We've got the Super Bowl this year and we're trying to take advantage of it,” says Dennis Swanson, president of station operations for Fox Television Station Group.

The news block begins with an hour of Fox News Sunday, hosted by Chris Wallace from New York, followed by Fox Super Sunday, a two-hour news special hosted by FNC's Shepard Smith, who will be live in Arizona.

“There are going to be a lot of people seeing Shepard Smith who frankly have never seen him before,” says Mike Mandelker, VP of ad sales at Fox News. “I think it will just change a lot of people's perception of who we are.

“From a promotional point of view, it's a great opportunity for us to get advertisers who wouldn't normally buy news. It's a great opportunity to talk to sneaker manufactures and other consumer products [companies], which under normal circumstances say, why do I want to talk to a news channel?”

Ratings will depend somewhat on the intensity of the game. The Patriots' winning season has already made television history with a tussle over carriage between the NFL Network and major operators, including Comcast. The spat led to a groundbreaking national simulcast of the Pats' regular season-ending matchup with the Giants on NFL Network, CBS and NBC, along with local stations in New York and the Boston area. The game was watched by 34 million people over the three networks.

The record for Super Bowl viewership is 94 million for the storied rivalry between the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers in 1996, when the Steelers were trying to win what would have been a record fifth Super Bowl. The Cowboys prevailed, 27-17.

The Patriots have already generated considerable interest with their history-making undefeated regular season. And if they beat the underdog Giants, they will become the best team in NFL history with a 19-0 record, besting the mark of the 1972 champion Miami Dolphins, which went into the record books at 17-0.

“This is going to be one of the great historic Super Bowls,” gushes Fox Sports' Hill. “This is going to be just legendary.”

With additional reporting by Claire Atkinson

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