Forget last year’s “wardrobe malfunction” for a moment – if that’s possible – and let’s just talk about year after year of lousy entertainment.

To be blunt, the Super Bowl halftime show is in need of an extreme makeover.

As football’s grandest game has ballooned into a one-day Mardi Gras, the halftime show is like a parade float that, year by year, has gotten flashier – and tackier. These productions have morphed from the original marching-band model into over-amped extravaganzas celebrating that bedrock American ideal, bigger is always better.

Using that more-is-more approach, it’s been a procession of superstar performers and supersized staging. All of which invariably adds up to a lot of flash and noise with zero entertainment value.

An exception to this rule was U2’s electrifying performance at the 2002 halftime. But there you had one of the few bands in the world that knows how to fill a stadium with sound and energy paying tribute to the 9-11 victims. It’s hard to turn a once-in-a-lifetime moment into a dependable formula.

What may be the most talked-about moment in Super Bowl halftime history occurred last year when Justin Timberlake ripped away half of Janet Jackson’s top, baring a jewelry-festooned breast.

But as the culture-rocking outcry that followed demonstrated, when it comes to being a showbiz entertainment producer, the NFL is caught in a dilemma – too tame and you lose the young men that advertisers pay millions of dollars to reach; too wild and you’ve got a revolt among viewers looking for a family-friendly experience.

Trying to pick your favorite horrible halftime is like trying to pick your favorite “Desperate Housewife” – they’re all so deliciously bad.

It’s a game we could play for hours. And it’s spreading as other bowl games try to get into the act. Recall (with a shudder) this year’s Orange Bowl’s miniconcert halftime, complete with sound glitches and Ashlee Simpson getting booed off the stage – the problem, apparently, is that she wasn’t lip-synching.

An even better place to see the halftime formula’s failure isn’t in the shows, but in the counter-programming they have inspired. Every year, the Super Bowl is the most watched event on television – with at least 90 million expected to tune in this year. And every year, there is a dead zone right in the middle of it, a situation that has inspired a spinoff industry of audience-poaching programs.

It began in 1992, when then-upstart network Fox offered a special edition of its hit show, “In Living Color,” timed to coincide with the Super Bowl’s halftime. The show included the now-standard element of such programs – a clock in the corner counting down to the game. Since then, MTV offered Beavis and Butt-head starring in the “Butt Bowl,” USA Network staged the WWF Halftime Heat, and NBC has offered a Playboy Playmate edition of “Fear Factor” and the SNL Super Bowl Halftime Show. Last year offered the pay-per-view event, “Lingerie Bowl.”

This year, the makers of the “Girls Gone Wild” video series are producing a pay-per-view event that promises “guaranteed wardrobe malfunctions.” Even the Internet is getting into the counter-programming act. A “live and uncensored” Webcast will present “The Strippers Bowl.”

Think of the Super Bowl as the Las Vegas of sporting events. For a time, Las Vegas tried to reach beyond its core audience and become a family-friendly destination. But while Las Vegas is a city in the Nevada desert, the Super Bowl is an event on network television.

So America’s gambling mecca can go back to what it does best (hence the recent “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” campaign), but the Super Bowl needs to maintain its safety-zone status, where parents can let their kids run around without worrying about them getting run over by Janet Jackson’s breast.

So what’s the answer?

It all depends, first and foremost, on whether you even think there is a problem.

“Many have tried and failed to steal the halftime audience. The halftime show is an important part of the Super Bowl experience,” says Ed Gorum, president of sports for Fox, reflecting an about-face from the network that started the counter-programming trend but today broadcasts the Super Bowl.

“The Super Bowl is such a big pie, there’s always going to be somebody trying to steal a piece of it. But it all came together the last time we had the Super Bowl, with U2. And I think we’ll have a similar experience this year with Paul McCartney – spectacular staging and a superstar performer.”

Where would the Super Bowl be without its superlatives?

Who knows, maybe an aging rock legend is the answer to humdrum halftimes – but that’s a big maybe. And in our point-and-click age, judgment is likely to be swift and severe.


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