HOUSTON -- There's arguably not a bigger nor more important assignment in live television than covering the Super Bowl. The NFL's annual championship game is the most-watched TV event of the year -- and has been, almost without exception, for ages, with recent airings drawing an audience of more than 100 million people in the United States alone.
That figures to be the case again Sunday, when the Atlanta Falcons take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI (FOX, FOX Sports Go, 6 p.m. ET). While FOX has proved deft at handling a game of this magnitude over the course of seven previous Super Bowl broadcasts, there were no guarantees going into the network's first, 20 years ago.
At the time, FOX was still in its relative infancy as a company, having been founded in October 1986. And for the better part of a decade after going on the air, FOX was known primarily as the renegade home to "Married... with Children," "The Simpsons," and "Cops." But in late 1993, the Rupert Murdoch-led organization surprised many in the TV world when it outbid CBS for the rights to the NFL's NFC package.
Soon after, FOX Sports was born, and on Aug. 12, 1994, the network broadcast its first NFL game, a preseason matchup between the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. And from the beginning, FOX set out to prove that it belonged in the pro football arena, scooping up several familiar faces from CBS' displaced crew days after inking the NFL deal.
"When FOX got the NFC contract, the first hire was really John (Madden) and myself," longtime CBS and FOX NFL producer Bob Stenner said. "But I was hired because they wanted John. And then they hired Pat (Summerall) and (director) Sandy (Grossman) and Terry (Bradshaw), and it was huge. FOX was like 'Beavis and Butthead.' It wasn't even really a network, and getting the NFL kind of made them legitimate."
There was comfort in the familiar, FOX also saw an opportunity to push boundaries in ways that those who set the industry standard never had. And in many ways it was former FOX Sports president David Hill who led that charge.
"I arrived here with a blank sheet of paper, and I had eight months to create FOX Sports," said Hill, who left Britain's Sky Sports to take over at FOX when it acquired the NFL rights. "There wasn't even a logo, there was no music. There wasn't a studio, there wasn't a control room. There was nothing."
Those things would all come in due time, of course, but Hill, who is widely recognized for creating the "FOX Box" on-screen scoreboard graphic, as well as his role in the development of the yellow first-down line, started with what he knew best: talent, particularly for the network's pregame show, which would run an hour during the regular season, as opposed to the traditional 30 minutes.
"It gets back to the formula: I needed someone to talk offense, someone to talk defense and someone to be a coach -- it's very simple," Hill said. "So you go out and find the best offensive guy that you can find, the best defensive guy you can find and the best coach.
"So you've got four Super Bowl rings in Terry Bradshaw, who can speak underwater with a mouthful of marbles," Hill continued. "Howie Long looks like a movie star, and he's a Hall of Famer -- he wasn't then, but you knew he was going to be. And Jimmy Johnson, the only human being, apart from Barry Switzer now, who has a ring as a championship college player, a ring as a championship college coach and a Super Bowl ring.
"The only problem would have been if they didn't like each other, but they bonded from Day One and I knew that would just go on and on and on," Hill added of the cast, which has since grown to include Michael Strahan and Curt Menefee, who replaced original studio host James Brown in the mid-2000s. "And now there's generations of kids in America for whom football is all about Howie, Terry and Jimmy."
So FOX started with a safety net in the form of an experienced broadcast team and brought together a new and exciting group with the pregame crew, and for the first two years, that served the network well. But FOX Sports' third season in the NFL ended with its first Super Bowl, a test that put pressure on Hill and others that had not been applied before.
'A huge responsibility'
"We all felt it," Hill said of Super Bowl XXXI, which was played in New Orleans on Jan. 26, 1997. "It was a huge responsibility, and this wasn't just for us. This was for the entire FOX family.
"This was for the broadcast network and for all our affiliates," Hill continued. "This proved to the world that FOX Sports was as good, if not better than any of the other networks, with the way we handled it, the professionalism, the way we looked, and more importantly, the way we treated the advertisers and showcased our commercial sponsors. From the very opening to the end credits, it was a huge responsibility because this effectively was the FOX network's coming of age."
In terms of the matchup, FOX couldn't have asked for much better than what it got, a meeting between the New England Patriots and Brett Favre's Green Bay Packers. But what should have been a celebratory weekend started under ominous circumstances, after a 43-year-old performer was killed in a bungee jumping accident during a halftime show rehearsal at the Superdome the Thursday before the game.
"It was just a tragic, tragic accident," Hill said. "So we went into it with this pall over us, and it just added to the tension.
"At that stage, at the very beginning of FOX Sports, there had been doubters about the way we wanted to make sports entertaining and to make it fun with the way we went about it," Hill continued. "So when we got down to New Orleans and then (there was) this incident, it kind of put all of us on edge."
When game day finally arrived, the broadcast also started with a behind-the-scenes hiccup as it kicked off its five-hour Super Bowl pregame show -- an absurd and unheard-of undertaking for its time.
"For the opening segment," Hill recalled, "I'd lined up a helicopter and a shot of a riverboat in New Orleans, and the shot was to be pulling back from the paddlewheel to a wide shot, and then we saw the city, and then we zoomed into the Louisiana dome," Hill recalled. "So we'd rehearsed everything, and we're about an hour or an hour and 10 minutes (from air), and I looked at (former FOX NFL Sunday coordinating producer) Scotty Ackerson and said, 'We haven't rehearsed the opening segment yet.'
"(Ackerson) said, 'Where's the script?'" Hill continued, "And I said, 'I thought you were writing the script.' And he said, 'No, I thought you were writing the script.'
"So we're going, 'Holy (expletive),'" Hill said. "And I'd leapt out of the truck, gone to the production office, tried to remember the sequence, found a computer, put it on, wrote the opening script -- 'Nestled in the elbow of the mighty Mississippi,' et cetera, et cetera -- found a printer, got a copy printed off and rushed out of the production office onto the field."
However, getting to the sideline set -- even for the president of FOX Sports -- wasn't so easy.
"I'd left my credential in the truck, and this guy wouldn't let me in," Hill said. "So I said, 'Then (expletive) shoot me,' and took off across the field, burst into the studio."
"We're about 10 minutes to air and I said to J.B., 'Here's the opening. You're going to have to sight-read it,'" Hill continued. "And so we went to air with J.B. -- 'Hello, and welcome ...' -- and we went through the sequence of shots with a pullback from the paddlewheel, and I'm tapping JB on the shoulder when it's his cue to keep reading. Holy cow, I think I lost 20 pounds in two minutes during that."
Hill also had to make the best of things after the league declined to let FOX cameras into the locker rooms to film the coaches' pregame speeches.
"I'm sitting with (then-director of research ops) Mike Berger -- Mike's also been with us since Day One -- and I say, 'What do you reckon is the greatest inspirational speech there is?'" Hill said. "And he said, 'Well, you can't do better than Henry V from Shakespeare.' And I said, 'You know, you're right.'
"That's the one that starts, 'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me,' blah, blah, blah, and I said, 'That's perfect,'" he continued. "So we got approval to show the Kenneth Branagh clip. And the lead to that was that both coaches are trying to give the greatest inspirational speeches of all time, and they wish they had the words of Henry V.
"Newspapers around the country were astounded," Hill added, "that Shakespeare had made his way into an NFL pregame show."
'A different sense of pressure'
Still, for however successful the pregame show might be, FOX's debut Super Bowl would ultimately be judged on how it handled the actual game, a fact not lost on former executive producer Ed Goren.
"That's a long pregame show and a lot can go wrong in a pregame show, so you get through it and exhale," Goren said. "But then you've got to slap yourself and go, 'Wait a minute, we've still got a game that we're producing.'
"The one thing with a Super Bowl, you have so many cameras, so many tape machines, that for the most part you are covered," continued Goren, another experienced CBS holdover. "But it's that one moment in a Super Bowl that can be a key moment, and you just hope that you have the definitive replay, the definitive angle, as opposed to leaving that key play with question marks as far as the broadcast.
"Unfortunately, it puts the broadcaster in a role where he or she could affect the game, certainly once they instituted instant replay," Goren said. "So back then you just want a clean broadcast."
And that burden felt heavy to workers at every level of the crew.
"What happens at the Super Bowl as opposed to all the other games during the regular season is that everybody wants a part of every activity," said the director, Stenner. "Somebody is in charge of the coin toss, somebody's in charge of the national anthem, somebody's in charge of player intros, and all the stuff we do on our own all year long, now it's huge. So there's more meetings and more detail."
Now FOX Sports' senior vice president for production and talent development, Jacob Ullman was a 23-year-old production assistant on the set of Super Bowl XXXI and recalled his appreciation for the gravity of the moment.
"My job at that time, on gameday, was I would hand James Brown all his information," Ullman said. "So you want to get it all right because if he messes it up, that's in front of however many million people in the country. It's a different sense of pressure. Whatever you do in the Super Bowl is magnified, whether it's 1997 or this Sunday. The old adage is to just act like it's another game, but it's not another game."
Still, there was some comfort in knowing that, beneath all the grandeur, it's still just football.
"People around the world by the millions are going to watch it whether it's me, Sandy, John and Pat or any of us doing the game," Stenner said. "They're interested in the game, and if you can make the conscious effort not to strut your stuff -- just cover the game, and don't get in the way. Don't try to debut a bunch of stuff that you're not sure works. You don't write checks you can't cash, so don't try to have people say, 'Look what FOX did,' because they don't care.
"The way we'll get recognition is if you (expletive) it up," Stenner added with a laugh. "Then they'll know who did it."
As for the production, itself, FOX got what it wanted out of the event. Fans were treated to an exciting matchup that featured several big plays from the champion Packers, whose first two touchdowns came on Favre passes of 54 and 81 yards, and who used a 99-yard kick return touchdown from game MVP Desmond Howard to seal the 35-21 victory.
And while mistakes were certainly made during the broadcast -- there may not ever be such a thing as nine error-free hours of live television -- none were so significant that they became the story.
"That's just the nature of the business," Stenner said. "People always say a defensive back has to have a short memory, and we do too in a sense, because you're going to make mistakes and you can't dwell on it, because a second later you're going to have to make another decision."
"Like any telecast, you look back and wince and say, 'Oh God, I wish that hadn't happened,' or, 'I wish we hadn't done that,' but by and large, I think it was seamless," Hill added. "The greatest trick in live television is when you make a mistake and no one knows about it."
'A great, great buzz'
It's only after the credits finally roll that everyone involved can finally relax.
"You've spent at least three or four days with your adrenaline running at peak, so when you go off air, that adrenaline switches off because you're safe," Hill said. "It goes back to that flee or fight thing of early man, and when you suddenly realize you're not in danger anymore, it's like letting the air out of a balloon.
"You feel good, but you feel tired, but you feel happy, and it's a great, great buzz," Hill continued. "It's the drug that's kept me doing this since I was 19."
"It was the kind of day where, once the game was over, you sort of exhale and go, 'Wow, what a ride,'" Goren added. "And whatever nerves you have going in, by the end of the day you're ready to get back on that roller coaster and do it again."
And for two decades and a half-dozen Super Bowls since, getting better with each try has been the goal.
"You say to yourself, 'I've been there, done that, and what did I learn?'" said Hill, who stepped down from his role at FOX in 2015 and this week signed on with eSports producer ESL. "And I think we had set ourselves a very high bar in that first one in New Orleans. So going down to Miami to do the second one, we wanted to outdo ourselves.
"And I think that's the great thing about it," Hill continued. "The spirit that's in FOX Sports -- and I hope it maintains for the rest of time -- is that there's a restlessness that you're never happy with what you've done, that you're always striving to do it better. And that creative restlessness, I think, has always marked us as being unique and different from every other broadcaster in this country, and probably the world."
Stenner, whose first championship production came in Super Bowl X in 1976, also produced FOX's next two Super Bowls -- the final two with Summerall and Madden in the booth -- and remained with the company producing NFL games through 2014. Goren stepped down in 2012 along with the director, Grossman, who passed away in 2014 after a battle with cancer.
But while some of the faces have changed in the 20 years since FOX first televised the Super Bowl, the approach to production hasn't -- and that was kind of the point from the start.
"The technology changes to be able to give you better pictures, better sound, long lenses, super slow-mo, wiring centers and guards, but in my opinion -- and maybe I'm old school -- it still comes down to good commentary, good storytelling and preparation," Stenner said. "All the technical stuff, that enhances it, and it's going to continue to get better every year. But if you think that's the most important thing, I believe you're making a mistake."
And as kickoff of Super Bowl LI approaches, the belief is that the current crew will continue to keep alive the spirit that fueled the original FOX crew 20 years ago.
"It's real easy to get caught up in all the momentum of the Super Bowl, and then you're going 100 miles an hour, and 100 miles an hour leads to crashes," said Joe Buck, who will be on play-by-play for his fifth Super Bowl on Sunday. "So I actually have notes on my board to slow down, take it easy, lighten up, smile. It's just different stuff that I remind myself, because you tend to lose all that once you get in there.
"Once they kick off, it's me, it's Troy (Aikman), it's Erin (Andrews), it's Chris (Myers), and that's the way it's been, with the exception of Chris, all year and for years," Buck continued. "So we've gone down this road. I know where (Troy's) going to go, he knows where I'm going to go, and that familiarity and comfort level are invaluable when you know there are 120 million people watching. And that's a good thing."
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.