The VICE Channels

    The Most-Watched Blackout in American History

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Looks like Super Bowl XLVII set two distinct records last night--drawing a Nielsen rating of 48.1, or 48% of television viewers across the nation, it was, expectedly, the most-watched Super Bowl in history. It was also the first to suffer an embarrassing power outage in the middle of game time. Super Bowl 47 was easily the most-watched blackout in U.S. history.

    The cause? Mechanical failure, basically. Entergy, the giant, New Orleans-based utility that supplies power to the city, says that the flow of electricity was never cut. The power was on--provided by in-state coal and nuclear plants--the Superdome just blew a giant fuse. The problem started at the spot where Entergy feeds power into the stadium's lines. The AP brings us a statement issued by Entergy and SMG, the company that operates the stadium: "A piece of equipment that is designed to monitor electrical load sensed an abnormality in the system," the statement said. "Once the issue was detected, the sensing equipment operated as designed and opened a breaker, causing power to be partially cut to the Superdome in order to isolate the issue."

    No official word has shed any more light on the precise nature of this "abnormality." CBS says it was because of a faulty monitor. Some commentators connected it to a similar depletion of energy amongst the Ravens after the first half. Batman fans linked it to Bane. Jay-Z says it was because of Beyonce. Deluded Twitter goons say it was because of Obama

    Jay-Z might actually be right--it's possible that the boom in power demand during Beyonce's halftime show, or an "abnormality" that occurred as levels returned to normal, could have triggered the machine that essentially acts as the Superdome's giant surge protector.

    Either way, the impact was striking. The Times reports that the blackout was a boon for the game's viewership, which will likely eclipse the previous Super Bowl as the most viewed television event of all time. Over 111.3 million people watched the last one, which clocked in with 0.3 less of a Nielsen share. So some 112 million people probably watched the big blackout, and it ended up being the most interesting part of the whole thing.

    It was something of a Wizard of Oz, man-behind-the-curtain moment--and I'm not just saying that because the 'reboot' of said film was heavily promoted during the Superbowl, or maybe I am. When the lights went out, for a second so too did the well-oiled pomp machine that been tidily steamrolling audiences with gleeful abandon for hours. The Super Bowl is as well-produced as any Hollywood action flick, with its sparkling CGI ads and focus group-tested dramatic narratives and world class pop soundtrack and gratuitous celebrity appearances, and we've all come to greedily expect the great national event, what someone recently astutely called the exclamation point of America.

    Then the lights go out, and it's just a couple dozen athletes stretching out on the grass in the dark. This is what the great national pasttime comes down to: just dudes. Massive, athletic, very rich dudes, but still dudes. Dudes that could play the relatively simple game on a half-lit field in the park, if they wanted to.  

    I kept wishing they'd just get up and play--they could, after all, they didn't need the 100 megawatt glare of 100% of the stadium lights and audio equipment and so on bearing down on them as they tossed a leather ball amongst themselves. They didn't, but we, of the various target demographics, did. Or so everybody assumed, because instead of keeping the show rolling, the organizers postponed the event until every last bit of tech could be brought back online. Everything had to be perfect, and until it was, things were just weird.

    All the grandiosity was mere construct: we saw, for a minute there, how advertisers, team owners, NFL commissioners, commentators, but mostly advertisers, and us, the sports fans, were powerless without state-of-the-art production values that rested upon the barest, most taken-for-granted part of civilizaton's infrastructure.

    Like the inauguration's lip-synching controversy but in real-time, here was a disorienting and delightful glimpse at some of the naked reality underlying the HD fantasy. A massive, thirty-two minute-long national wardrobe malfunction.

    Cameras zoomed in on guys sitting in the grass, running in place, looking around, confused. Announcers made small talk about when the power might come back on. Basically, for half an hour, 110 million people got a closeup of precisely the same phenomenon that occurs when a blackout hits their own homes--you know, when we light candles and live low-tech for a couple hours. When we play cards and meatspace games instead of video games, have awkward conversations instead of listening to them on TV, when we step outside the electric theater that beams up a constant stream of modern spectacle.

    Wonderfully, that phenomenon is now the unlikely star of the most-viewed television event in history: a blackout that, for half an hour there, brought us back to the basics.


    The Phone-Charging Bonfire of Blackout New York City 

    The Science of Blacking Out

    We're Super Bowl Hyenas: Why Watching Sports Makes Us Howl

    Anticipating Super Bowl Ads Is Still A Thing