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Ethan Trex
Counterprogramming the Super Bowl
by Ethan Trex - January 31, 2008 - 11:35 AM

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The Super Bowl is a magical time for sports fans. The NFL crowns its champion, and if we’re all very lucky during the commercials, we might get to see Jay Mohr address a Diet Pepsi can like it’s a person. However, it’s also a wonderful time to love any sort of TV programming. Since Fox’s first major counterprogramming of In Living Color in 1992, other networks have been airing content to try to lure away some of the year’s biggest TV audience. Although none of the major networks have risked their relationship with the NFL by aggressively counterprogramming since NBC’s 2003 Weekend Update segment with Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey, cable channels still do whatever they can to steal the big game’s viewers.

The basic idea of counterprogramming is simple. Around 100 million people are watching the Super Bowl, and some of them are bound to get bored with the game broadcast at some point. Come up with a program that can swipe away even 5% of them, and you’ve pilfered yourself a huge audience, especially by cable standards. Most of these efforts are concentrated at halftime, since many diehard football fans probably don’t care about watching Tom Petty sing “American Girl” even if they’ve heard some awesome urban legends about it. With that in mind, we give you some of the brightest, most bizarre moments in Super Bowl counterprogramming history:

WWF Halftime Heat (1999)


When Super Bowl XXXIII aired in 1999, the professional wrestling company now known as the WWE was on top of the sports entertainment world. Owner Vince McMahon correctly figured that the same audience who enjoyed football probably wouldn’t want to watch a halftime show of Gloria Estefan, Stevie Wonder, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy in “A Celebration of Soul, Salsa, and Swing.” McMahon countered by scheduling some wrasslin’ between the second and third quarters and luring viewers in with a title match between two of the company’s biggest stars.

Champion The Rock took on “deranged” contender Mankind in an empty-arena match for the world heavyweight title. Yes, it was a completely empty arena except for a camera crew, announcers, and a referee. As you probably guessed, Mankind took the belt by pinning the Rock under a forklift. (This is professional wrestling, so don’t think too long about the details lest your head explode.)

Was it a success? The match drew around 5 million viewers, each and every one of whom learned that a trash bag full of popcorn was a viable weapon for stopping a 250-pound wrestler. In other words, it was a rousing success.

Butt Bowl (1994-1996)

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MTV needed a way to cash in on Beavis and Butthead’s mid-90s swell of popularity, and what better way to do it than with a halftime special? The Butt Bowl ran at halftime of Super Bowls XXVIII-XXX. The specials were basically just regular episodes of the show, except instead of riffing over multiple music videos, each Butt Bowl only featured one.

Was it a success? Hard to say. Ratings info for the specials appear to have been lost to the sands of time, but we can say with some degree of certainty that Lake Titicaca has never received a more thorough send-up during a Super Bowl halftime than it did in these three years.

The Lingerie Bowl (Debuted in 2004)

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Of course, football fans aren’t just swayed by choreographed violence and flatulence jokes. They also like scantily clad ladies! Horizon Productions introduced the Lingerie Bowl in 2004 as a humble pay-per-view alternative halftime offering models playing full-contact tackle football in their underwear. Models aren’t generally known for their football prowess, so Horizon brought in some coaching. Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor and Eric Dickerson coached Team Dream and Team Euphoria, respectively. The game itself turned was less than thrilling, with Team Dream winning 6-0, prompting some to label Team Euphoria QB Angie Everhart “the Joey Harrington of underwear football.” Ironically, the truly desperate to see some skin should have kept their dials on 2004’s Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, which featured Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction.

Was it a success? Sort of. Despite getting off to a rocky start when sponsor Dodge pulled its backing amid a serious consumer backlash, the Lingerie Bowl toughed it out for a few more years. Lingerie Bowl 5 was set to kick off this Sunday, and it was going to be more star-studded than ever. Celebrities scheduled to appear included former NFL players Jim McMahon, Brian Bosworth, William “The Refrigerator” Perry and a very special sideline reporter, Kato Kaelin. Unfortunately, all of this star power couldn’t secure the permits needed to hold the game in Scottsdale, and on the game was cancelled for the second year in a row.

Puppy Bowl (2005-Present)

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Counterprogramming options that soothe and uplift the soul are available as well. Take, for instance, Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl. Since its inception in 2005, the Puppy Bowl has offered an alternative for viewers who prefer adorableness to football.

The brilliance of the Puppy Bowl lies in the simplicity of its premise: it’s a bunch of puppies being ridiculously cute in a fake football stadium. That’s it. Harry Kalas, the voice of the Philadelphia Phillies and NFL Films, provides the occasional bit of football-themed commentary, and every once in a while a guy in a referee’s shirt will step in to clean up after accidents. Other than that, there’s nothing but wall-to-wall cuteness. Don’t love watching puppies frolic? In all likelihood you’re evil, but the bowl’s “Bissell Kitty Halftime Show” may strike your cat fancy instead.

Was it a success? Absolutely. In addition to helping some of the featured homeless puppies find new owners, the show has been a huge ratings draw for Animal Planet, netting six million viewers in 2005. This year the network will host Puppy Bowl IV; whether or not it will be cuter than Tom Brady’s smile is certainly up for debate, though.

Major League Eating Chowdown: Ham N’ Eggs (2008)

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It’s hard to leave a good Super Bowl party without feeling slightly disgusted with yourself for eating so much delicious snack food. Count on Spike TV to give you some much-needed perspective on your gluttony this year, though, with a competitive eating halftime special. First, eight eaters will attempt to make Cool Hand Luke look weak by breaking the world record for hard-boiled egg consumption, a mere 65 eggs. Then eight of the world’s most ravenous eaters, including Joey Chestnut and Tim “Eater X” Janus, will square off by eating whole spiral hams.

Was it a success? Too early to tell, but really, what would you rather watch: Tom Petty sing “Runnin’ Down a Dream” or someone eat an entire spiral-cut ham?

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet’s undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

Comments (13)
  1. I loooooooove Puppy Bowl. LOVE IT. I DVR it in addition to flipping to it during commercials. My cold, black heart warms just a little bit more every year.

    Plus my daughter practically tries to climb into the TV to get to the puppies. She’s never done that for a football player.

  2. Puppy Bowl! The best part is the kitten half-time show!

  3. I’ve never seen the Puppy Bowl because I don’t have cable, but I’m looking at its website right now, and I must say, it’s adorable. I want a new puppy!

  4. I would say I can’t believe I’ve never heard of any of these . . . but I haven’t watched the Super Bowl in about 8 years, so I guess it makes sense.

  5. I was all pumped for the puppy bowl BUT- no pug puppies! Me and my two rescue pugs are boycotting!

  6. I love that you posted about the Puppy Bowl! I have been thinking about it all day… I will definitely be watching the whole Super Bowl game, commercials and all, but will be checking out the Puppy Bowl On Demand later in the week. They better put it on On Demand…
    What a brilliant idea.

  7. I love the Puppy Bowl! Honestly, I wish there was a channel which had nothing but video of puppies playing. All I’d need to do was watch it for a few minutes now and then to lighten my mood and make me smile.

  8. I love the Puppy Bowl and the halftime kitties too. To me, the Animal Planet channel should be programming like this all the time. Less stupid programming and more cuteness!

  9. how about in 99 when battlebots had a ppv opposing the superbowl. I know i skipped the game to see robotic carnage.

  10. Don’t forget PBS’s Robot Wars marathon back in 2000 where we got to see Jamie Hyneman and Grant Imahara for the first time before they were famous on Mythbusters.

  11. I usually watch something else during the half time show. I haven’t really enjoyed the Puppy Bowl, but sometimes it can be better than the performers at the Half Time show.

  12. Nice post! Some great commercials here.

  13. Lingerie Bowl cancelled this year.