• Mike Smallcombe

Super Bowl and Michael Jackson: The story behind the first big halftime show

Musical acts have performed on the NFL’s Super Bowl halftime show ever since trumpeter Al Hirt and a university marching band graced the inaugural contest in 1967.

But over the next quarter of a century, the NFL failed to attract any stellar names in the world of entertainment to perform at the showpiece event.

Whenever halftime rolled around, the Super Bowl broadcast would lumber into its usual lull, as tens of millions of viewers rushed to the bathroom or the refrigerator.

In the days after Super Bowl XXVI in January 1992, it finally dawned on the executives that TV ratings were most vulnerable during the halftime show. CBS’s halftime rating that year fell 10 points from game action in the previous half-hour.

A staggering 20 million viewers switched over to Fox to watch a live edition of its popular show In Living Color, rather than sit through the performances of singer Gloria Estefan, and former Olympic champion skaters Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill.

It was the final straw. The NFL suits knew they needed to raise their game and recruit the biggest contemporary acts in the world. "We had to step it up a notch,” the NFL’s then executive director of special events, Jim Steeg, admitted.

There was one name at the top of the list: Michael Jackson. Having just released his smash album Dangerous, the King of Pop was riding high on the crest of a resurgent wave of popularity.

In February 1992, just four weeks after Super Bowl XXVI, Steeg and Arlen Kantarian, CEO of halftime show producers Radio City Productions, landed a Beverly Hills meeting with Jackson’s manager, Sandy Gallin.

The pair told Gallin they wanted Jackson to be the sole performer during the hallftime show the following year. But Gallin and Jackson weren't particularly receptive to the idea. “I remember pitching them and them not really having a clue what we were talking about," Steeg recalled. In a subsequent meeting, Kantarian recalls Jackson asking him, “Who plays in it? What is it?”

Gallin turned down the NFL’s proposal three times before saying yes. At one point, when a bemused Gallin was told the NFL only pays performers' expenses, he told Kantarian: “You’ve got to be kidding… this is Michael Jackson”, before asking for a $1 million fee.

The deal-breaker came when show producer Don Mischer told Jackson the event would be broadcast in more than 120 countries, including third world nations, and on United States military bases. Jackson was convinced. “Man, I’ll never tour there,” he said, according to Kantarian.

“We talked to him about the blue-collar football fan that might not otherwise be a Michael Jackson fan and about how he could build a new fan base,” Kantarian added. “He got that as well. He was very sharp and very shy.”

After the NFL agreed to donate $100,000 to Jackson’s Heal the World Foundation, a deal was struck.

The NFL’s proposition also fitted perfectly with Gallin’s new management strategy, which was to place his client in front of the largest television audiences possible. Gallin believed the negative Jackson stories that were appearing in the tabloids were causing substantial damage, and his client desperately needed to reconnect with the American public.

“I knew that we had to do something drastic and show Michael as a living human being, because his image was just so bizarre,” Gallin admitted. "I came up with a plan, and when I presented it to Michael, he thought I was insane. He said, ‘No way, you’re crazy, you’re trying to make me the boy next door.’

"And I said, ‘Michael, I could work with you for a thousand years and I could never make you the all American boy next door. I just want people to know that you’re human and that you don’t walk around with a snake around your neck’.

"People thought he couldn’t talk, that he couldn’t carry a conversation, that he was from Mars.”

Michael, his manager Sandy Gallin and Madonna

January 1993 was a busy month for Jackson; he was booked to perform at President Clinton’s Inaugural Gala in Washington D.C., as well as the American Music Awards at the Shrine Auditorium. But his most high profile performance would come at the Super Bowl XXVII halftime show at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Los Angeles on January 31.

When discussions began over show production, Jackson affirmed his desire to sing new songs from his latest smash album, Dangerous. He said, “Billie Jean’s just a tune, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a new world; this has to be about ‘Heal the World’.”

Jackson and his touring band spent 28 days in January 1993 rehearsing at the Rose Bowl. At 7pm the night before the game, Jackson was still perfecting his routine in a tent outside the stadium.

For perhaps the only time in his career, Jackson was nervous about taking to the stage. "I'll tell you, it was the only time I ever saw Michael nervous," band member Jennifer Batten explained. "It's live, and there's only the time of a couple of potato chip commercials to get the stage out onto the field."

On the stroke of halftime, with the Dallas Cowboys leading the Buffalo Bills by a score of 28 to 10, crews had three minutes and 20 seconds to put together the 75-foot stage, which came in 22 pieces and weighed a huge ten tonnes.

Jackson started with a three-minute medley of ‘Jam’, ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Black or White’. Dressed in a black and gold military outfit, he was catapulted onto the stage before standing motionless for 90 seconds.

Jackson had only informed show producer Don Mischer of his plans for the show opening two days before. Mischer recalls: “Michael called me at my house at 3am in the morning and said, ‘I want to determine when the show starts. I have a concept for the beginning’. And the cue was, ‘I am going to reach up and take my glasses off. And that’s when you prepare to roll the track’.”

Around 40 seconds after landing on the stage, Jackson still hadn't flinched. Mischer began to panic. “When you’re directing this, every second is like an eternity,” he said. “And I just start to shout, ‘Michael, dammit, take your glasses off’! He can’t hear me, but I’m just losing it, kind of shouting into my headset. All the camera guys can hear me, but that was the deal I had made with him, and I was not going to jump the queue.”

After a tireless three-minute dance set, the show finale kicked off with an audience card set and a choir of 3,500 local children singing ‘We Are the World’.

Musical director Brad Buxer then transitioned into the opening chords of ‘Heal the World’. Jackson grabbed the mic, and told the audience: "Today, we stand together all around the world, joined in a common purpose to remake the planet into a haven of joy and understanding and goodness. No one should have to suffer… especially our children. This time, we must succeed; this is for the children of the world”.

For the song's final moments, Jackson was joined by the choir of children as a giant globe appeared on the stage. Those images became the most viewed in the history of television.

For the Super Bowl execs, Jackson delivered. The 1993 event became the first in history where audience figures actually increased during the halftime show, and it became the most watched American television broadcast ever. Ratings increased 8.6% over the previous year, and NBC kept its audience during halftime as well as the game's second half.

Suddenly, the entertainment world saw the value of the Super Bowl halftime show. The NFL hasn't looked back, courting the biggest starts the music world has to offer year after year.

After the Super Bowl, Jackson’s time in the public eye continued when he gave a rare interview to chat show queen Oprah Winfrey at Neverland. The show, which was telecast live around the world to an estimated 90 million viewers, was a monumental success for Jackson.

His time in the limelight helped Dangerous rise back up into the top ten of the Billboard chart, over a year after its initial release. Billboard's chart manager claimed he couldn’t remember such a resurgence at the end of an album’s life, and the Los Angeles Times described the shock media blitz as ‘the sudden coming-out of Michael Jackson’ in the United States.

Sandy Gallin’s plan to ‘humanise’ Jackson had worked. “It made him much more accessible, and made him appear more like a real person,” Gallin said. “Michael was thrilled with the results. I knew I would have been fired immediately if it didn’t work.”

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