NEW YORK - When the lights went out at the Super Bowl, CBS' telecast got a jolt.
The power outage in the Super Dome in New Orleans sent the network scrambling and silenced its announcers for about half an hour. The remarkable scene - probably the most-watched "we're having technical difficulties" moment in television history - also made CBS' broadcast compelling at a time when the game was looking like a blow-out.
Early in the game's second half, a portion of the Superdome lost power, including CBS' broadcasting booth where Jim Nantz and Phil Simms were calling the game. It led to an awkward, ambient few moments of darkness and quiet in a broadcast that's otherwise nonstop noise. A highly orchestrated media event was suddenly forced to improvise.
It took several minutes and numerous commercial breaks for CBS to find its footing and inform viewers of the situation. Social media went wild with a stream of joke conspiracy theories.
Eventually, CBS sideline reporter Steve Tasker - the MVP on the night, regardless of the play on the gridiron - announced the problem of a "click of the lights" to viewers. Later, the halftime crew anchored by host James Brown returned to fill time with football analysis. Brown said a power surge caused the outage.
That left the CBS NFL Today crew of Brown, Dan Marino, Bill Cowher and Shannon Sharpe to improvise by talking football. With little awareness of the power outage, the group bantered about the game to pad for time, even though viewers at that point had little interest in football strategy. Marino claimed halftime performer Beyonce knocked the lights out.
Calm and collected, Nantz and Simms finally returned from their unexpected exile as the lights came back on. Simms said he momentarily thought they were going to have to call the rest of the game from the sidelines.
"Hey, the next time you decide to plug in your phone charger, give us a warning, will you?" said Nantz.
"I was doing some of my best work during that blackout," replied Simms.
CBS issued a statement later in the game, saying that "we lost numerous cameras and some audio powered by sources in the Super Dome." The network said it used backup power and that "all commercial commitments during the broadcast are being honored."
The power outage may have had the ironic effect of keeping viewers glued to their TVs, amazed at seeing the biggest TV event of the year momentarily shut down. At the time of the outage, the game was becoming a rout, with the Baltimore Ravens beating the San Francisco 49ers 28-6.
But afterward, momentum shifted and the 49ers rallied, making it a close game that went down to the wire before the Ravens edged out a 34-31 victory. Close contests are essential for retaining a big Super Bowl audience, so the shift that followed the outage held major ratings implications for CBS. The last three years, the game has successively set viewership records. Last year's Super Bowl drew 111.3 million average viewers for NBC.
But ratings are a mere point of pride for CBS, with the ads sold-out well in advance, (some at more than $4 million a pop). The game was also streamed live on both CBSSports.com and NFL.com.
The chaos of the power failure outshined all other aspects of CBS' broadcast, which had seemed certain to focus on a handful of storylines: the head coaching brothers John and Jim Harbaugh (CBS scored their parents on the pregame); the threat to player safety by head injuries (a pregame segment took an optimistic view); and Ray Lewis' final game and fraught legacy.
Nantz reminded viewers during the game of the 2000 double murder case in which Lewis testified against two men and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice. But Sharpe, Lewis' former teammate, let him completely evade the subject in a pregame interview.
Nantz also smartly predicted the Ravens possibly taking a safety willingly at the end of the game for the sake of time and field position. Simms initially dismissed the idea, but it was what the Ravens elected to do and it was successful.
CBS didn't overplay the Harbowl angle (if anything, it felt more like the Beyonce Bowl), and didn't flash to the parents in the crowd until the second quarter. Director Mike Arnold did land the money shot of the game: The two coaches embracing at midfield after the game. (Its cameras and microphones also caught Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco celebrating with profanity.)
But this year's Super Bowl broadcast will be remembered for the blackout - how CBS handled and benefited from an awkward situation. Nantz put the fitting final word on the Ravens' win: "The adversity they faced tonight was to somehow rekindle the energy after it had been taken - literally - out of the building."