Fox Includes "Idol" In Super Bowl

Singer Jordin Sparks sings the national anthem before the Super Bowl XLII football game between the New England Patriots and New York Giants on Feb. 3, 2008, in Glendale, Ariz.
AP Photo/ David J. Phillip
Sunday night's championship battle between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots drew 97.5 million viewers, making it the most watched Super Bowl ever.

Fox brought in a ringer to help earn those numbers: the network's other ratings monster, "American Idol."

Before the game, "Idol" host Ryan Seacrest rolled out a red carpet, "Idol" judge Paula Abdul performed her first new song in a decade, and "Idol" winner Jordin Sparks sang the national anthem.

Of course, the Super Bowl already had its "American Idol": the dashing, unflappable Tom Brady, upon whom the Fox cameras were always focused.

Photos: Super Bowl Showtime
But by the end of the night, Brady had shockingly, unbelievably ceded his crown to Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Manning engineered a late charge down the field that culminated with a touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress. With a 17-14 win, the Giants ended New England's undefeated season and won Super Bowl XLII at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

With so many young, attractive celebrities both on the field and off, halftime performer Tom Petty seemed a world apart. He and the Heartbreakers have long specialized in anthemic sing-alongs, but Petty's prevailing demeanor has always been a bemused one.

No over-the-top showman, Petty was a welcome bit of understatement, calmly playing on a heart-shaped stage amid a sea of Super Bowl excess.

Petty and the Heartbreakers played old classics, mostly unaltered, including "I Won't Back Down," "Free Fallin'" and "Running Down a Dream." It may not have been the most radical concert ever seen, but Petty let the songs speak for themselves and, as Prince did last year, gave an excellent show.

But given the Giants' upset win, Petty was likely to be an afterthought on Monday.

Fox's commentating duo, play-by-play man Joe Buck with analyst and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, kept their approach largely straightforward. Buck rarely strayed from the action on the field, and Aikman, while not especially illuminating, accurately chronicled the Giants' surprise success on defense.

Speaking of Fox's mid-game highlight reels, Buck said: "We may not be the best announcers out there, but our truck does that stuff the best."

True enough, so long as you disregard those ridiculous warrior-robot animations the network constantly employs.

But in a memorable upset, neither Buck nor Aikman uttered a memorable line to be replayed for years. It was a situation screaming for gravitas, but none was to be found.

Perhaps the most poignant accomplishment of the broadcast was in its frequent (but not overdone) cutaways to Eli's big brother, Peyton, who cheered passionately from a private box.

Together, the hard-nosed game and the strong halftime show were enough to make Fox's telecast a seamless and successful one. But it didn't start out that way.

Fox, which is owned by News Corp., opened Sunday's coverage at noon (EDT), with the official pre-game show beginning at 2 p.m., live from Glendale. Curt Menefee anchored the regular Fox Sports cast of Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Jimmy Johnson.

Four hours, though, is a long time to fake laugh.

Their football commentary was surrounded by entertainment segments, including those from Fox News host Neil Cavuto and impersonator Frank Caliendo of TBS' "Frank TV." Caliendo, frequent contributor to Fox Sports, finally seemed to have gotten on Bradshaw's last nerve.

"My mom will whup his butt," Bradshaw said. "I'm fed up with this little runt."

Soon, Seacrest seemed more the host than Menefee and company.

Though several of this winter's regular red carpet affairs have been canceled due to the writers strike, Seacrest brought the award show tradition to the normally beer-soaked stadium parking lot.

It was, literally, a red carpet to nowhere, as it was located a half-mile from the stadium.

Abdul used the stage to debut her first new single in years: "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow." Abdul, who has had her share of public miscues, performed the song in a taped performance from some undisclosed location.

Note to the next dismissed "Idol" contestant: Be sure to tell Paula that at least you didn't lip-sync.

Seacrest didn't draw any of the game's players to the red carpet, but he did find a fairly steady stream of celebrities on their way to the game, including John Travolta, Nick Lachey, Lawrence Fishburne, Hugh Laurie and John Krasinski.

Similar to the award show red carpets that Seacrest often traffics in, his only real question was: "Who are you wearing?" _ except this time, the only answers were Giants or Patriots.

Lately, playoff football and "American Idol" have been advertisers' only surefire bets for big ratings. "Idol" ratings have been slightly down this year and last week slipped below 30 million viewers per episode _ but the Fox show is still easily the most-watched weekly program on TV.

The football field saw its first action of the day when Alicia Keys performed before a not-yet-filled stadium and a mob of swaying fans clustered around a small, circular stage.

Thickly covered in makeup and wearing black-and-white leopard pants, Keys played the pop star, rather than the classic, Grammy-winning artist, and ably sang a medley including new and old songs.

The non-leopard-pants-wearing Keys, though, is much preferable.