Tim Tebow Super Bowl ad: a Pandora’s box for TV sports?

Now accepting advocacy ads that hew to evolving ‘norms,’ CBS reverses its previous policy and shakes up Super Bowl Sunday. The flip side: Events from Super Sunday to the Daytona 500 could become a parade of in-your-face social commentary.

By , Staff writer

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    Florida quarterback Tim Tebow embraces his mother, Pam, during a pre-game ceremony for graduating seniors on the Florida football team prior to an NCAA college football game against Florida State in Gainesville, Fla. last month.
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The decision by CBS to reverse its policy of refusing advocacy ads for the Super Bowl has erupted into controversy over the Tim Tebow antiabortion ad, which in turn touched off a meaning-of-feminism debate between Sarah Palin and the National Organization for Women.
 
Expect lots more where that came from.
 
For starters: An ad for ManCrunch, a gay dating service whose tagline is “Where many, many, many men come out to play,” is now being reviewed for appropriateness by CBS. The ad features two men watching football who turn to each other and start making out, to the shock of a third buddy.
 
The combination of the CBS policy change (approved by the NFL), media companies desperate for cash, and last week’s Supreme Court ruling on campaign advertising all but ensures that America’s sports-watching experience is about to be inundated by political messaging, pop culture experts say. 

Open door for advocacy groups?

“In agreeing to air the Focus on the Family's anti-abortion commercial with Florida quarterback Tim Tebow next Sunday, CBS has touched off a discussion on whether the relatively bliss-filled nature of sports television should be intruded upon by real life,” writes Milton Kent on the FanHouse blog. "The ad opens the door for advocacy groups of all political stripes and causes to spread their messages to sports telecasts, which, by and large, have been devoid of that kind of controversy."
 
CBS took heat in 2004 for turning down a gay-friendly ad. The network recently said  a statement that it “became apparent that our stance did not reflect public sentiment or industry norms.” CBS says it is still reviewing ads for the Super Bowl broadcast and judging whether they’re “appropriate for air.”
 
But as with the gay dating service ad, CBS now ensures that its internal reviews will come under scrutiny. If the network airs an antiabortion ad meant to be inspiring – like the story of how Tebow’s mom went against a doctor’s suggestions to have an abortion in order to give birth to Tebow, a future Heisman Trophy winner – it’ll be increasingly difficult for the network to turn down other “inspiring” messaging ads depicting other viewpoints.

A three-hour break from politics

TV networks have, of course, long aired advocacy ads, but the brouhaha over the Super Bowl broadcast is, in the end, largely cultural. It's the three hours when America collectively leaves behind the topsy-turvy world of American society and politics to focus on guys throwing footballs and to watch funny commercials filling up the multitude of timeouts and breaks.
 
"For it, against it, I don't care what you are," writes columnist Gregg Doyel at CBS Sports, bemoaning his employer's stance-change. "On Super Sunday, I don't care what I am. Feb. 7 is simply not the day to have that discussion."
 
Nevertheless, partisan politics and the economics of the media business are conspiring to change the feeling of game day, even beyond the Super Bowl.

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After CBS's decision, which is being closely watched by the other networks, events like the Master’s, the Olympics (200 million people could watch, NBC projects), and the Daytona 500 could all become targets of advocacy groups looking for a massive and rapt audience.
 
Last week’s Citizens United ruling by the US Supreme Court – that corporations are entitled to individual free speech in the form of campaign spending – could also bring political ads to baseball, football, and basketball games during campaign seasons.

Not everyone thinks that's a bad idea.
 
“[Advocacy ads during the Super Bowl] aren't necessarily a bad thing,” argues Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “One of the things about the Super Bowl is that the commercials are as interesting as the game, and this could go that way, as well.”

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