February 6, 2011
Superbowl, Superbowl, Superbowl … let’s see, that one’s football, isn’t it?
What I know, or care, about sports could fill a thimble, but even I understood the importance this week when the Wall Street Journal announced the discovery of a tape of the Superbowl I game that was telecast live on both NBC and CBS in 1967. In an era when 2″ videotape was expensive and bulky, the television networks routinely reused the tapes or even tossed them out just to conserve space. Most of the first decade of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show remains the most famous victim of this colossal short-sightedness, but the first Superbowl has always been right behind it on television’s “whoops, we maybe shoulda kept that, huh?” list. As its curator, Ron Simon, points out in the Journal piece, the Paley Center for Media has had Superbowl I perched forlornly atop its most-wanted list since before it started calling itself the Paley Center For Media.
While I’m as delighted about this find as any sports fan, I can’t help but wonder about the real story behind this story. Because the Journal‘s reporting raises just as many questions as it answers.
First of all, the reporters, David Roth and Jared Diamond, wait until their third-to-last graf before they mention that the Superbowl I tape is incomplete. The half-time show and a “large chunk” of the third quarter are missing. Since 80% of the first Superbowl is a lot more than the 0% of the first Superbowl we had until recently, maybe it’s a bit of a buzz-kill to dwell too long on that fact. But we also can’t take Superbowl I off the missing list yet, either. Anybody who’s been searching for the show for the last forty-three years will be searching for the missing quarter. The “Holy Grail,” as executive Rick Bernstein calls it in the Journal, is now just a smaller and not-so-shiny grail.
The other fact that gets rather buried in the Journal article is that the tape’s owner realized its significance back in 2005 – almost six years ago. It’s not clear exactly when the Paley Center, which “restored” the tape that had been stored in a Philadelphia attic since 1967, became involved, but evidently it was closer to 2005 than to now. So why are we just hearing the news this week? The opportunistic timing of the announcement to coincide with this year’s Superbowl is a little tacky. Given the magnitude of this discovery, shouldn’t the folks at the Paley Center have felt some obligation to disclose it as soon as they knew it?
One reason behind the timing may be money, another critical issue that the Journal reporters don’t get into until the very end of their report. At one point, Sports Illustrated estimated the value of a Superbowl I recording at $1 million. According to a lawyer representing the tape owner (who has not been named publicly, I guess for fear of being descended on by thousands of sports fanatics), the NFL offered $30,000 for it. If my between-line reading is correct, then the long delay, and the timing of the present announcement, stem from years of dickering between the owner of the tape and the copyright holder, neither of whom can benefit much from the Superbowl I tape without the other. And until that stalemate is broken, no one can view the recording, apparently not even at the Paley Center.
I don’t know enough about the situation to take sides, but it does seem that someone who was smart enough to hold on to something that two entire television networks didn’t think was worth keeping deserves a decent share of whatever profits that recording might yield.