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Friday, February 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kay McFadden

A newbie's guide to watching Super Bowl XL — ads and all

Seattle Times TV critic

It's fourth and long, and the clock is ticking. There's no escape; excuses have failed. You're out of the pocket and into the clichés.

In other words, you're watching Super Bowl XL.

Whether dragged behind the chariot wheels of civic glory or afraid of social ostracism, many locals who've dodged Super Sunday for years will be forced to join the anticipated biggest TV audience in Seattle history to see the Seahawks play the Steelers in Detroit.

Fear not. Anticipating your questions, here are a few guidelines:

I haven't watched any football. What if I make mistakes?

Don't worry; even the pros goof up. Consider Seahawk wide receiver Darrell Jackson, who said earlier this week on national television that the chilly rain forecast will favor Seattle without noting that the game is in a domed stadium.

Do I have to watch the whole thing?

Given that the whole thing starts with coverage on ESPN starting at 8 a.m., the answer is definitely no.

But if you remember sneaking sips of stale Rainier Beer while Dad watched the Super Bowl, you might want to see ABC's pregame salute to past championships, which starts at 11:30 a.m. It's also an easy way to drop knowledgeable references: Joe Namath's knees, Jim McMahon's sunglasses, O.J. Simpson's civil suit.

Just kidding! The National Football League strictly forbids negative publicity. In any event, you will want to be around for the kickoff, which is at 3:30 p.m. on KOMO.

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I'm afraid I won't recognize important Seattle people.

You're not alone. That's why Fox announcer Terry Bradshaw was so confused two weeks ago when he gave the NFC division trophy to a man he seemed to think was Mayor Greg Nickels, but was actually Seahawks owner Paul Allen. No one knows what either guy looks like.

And by the way — have you noticed those two are never in the same room at the same time? Is there some kind of Clark Kent-Superman deal going on?

What should I know about the announcers?

The guy who gets excited and scribbles on the screen is John Madden; the one who lends sobriety and clarification is Al Michaels. They've co-announced "Monday Night Football" for four years, but will split up when Madden goes to NBC next season while Michaels and "MNF" move to ESPN.

It's also rumored that Madden resembles Mayor Nickels — not that we know what he looks like.

All we know is that if you throw in Allen and Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, you've got a super-hefty version of football's famed Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

You've lost me. But speaking of scribbles, why do they paint that yellow stripe over and over on the field?

That yellow stripe is the first-down line that the team with the football is trying to cross. It's created by the same computer imaging that can put ABC stars in seats or a can of Bud in the end zone, should potential ad revenue call for it.

I've heard about Super Bowl ads and how they cost a ton. Why is that?

Modern football's structure of quarterly breaks, timeouts, penalties, challenges to penalties and reviews of penalties is uniquely suited to commercial breaks. You'd almost think the game had been redesigned for them.

Also, the Super Bowl airs in one broadcast instead of over multiple nights like the World Series or Stanley Cup. It draws up to 100 million viewers and is the top-rated show year after year, which is why advertisers now pay about $2.5 million for a 30-second spot.

So, are the ads good? Can I watch them and just skip the football?

It depends on your definition of "good."

Several factors are influencing a trend from edgy and provocative to wholesome and quirky: continued backlash from 2004's crass spots aimed at young men; broadcaster fear of FCC indecency fines; and the fact that this year's Super Bowl is on Disney-owned ABC, the most family-minded of networks.

Even parody is suspect. In 2005, Internet service provider GoDaddy.com had a hilarious Super Bowl ad satirizing the Janet Jackson boob-haha, but Fox yanked the second showing after some viewers complained. This year, ABC has rejected a new spot from GoDaddy, the contents of which were not disclosed.

Las Vegas long has protested that it can't advertise on the Super Bowl because the image-obsessed NFL forbids references to gambling — pretty funny when you consider that not only can you bet on the game, you can bet which commercial will win USA Today's Ad Meter poll. (P.S.: PinnacleSports.com favors Anheuser-Busch at 1-to-2.)

So what ads should I look for?

One that's popped on the radar is a Nationwide Insurance spot starring model Fabio in a spoofy romance fantasy designed perfectly for ABC's "Desperate Housewives" demographic.

CareerBuilder.com, which last Super Bowl debuted a memorable series featuring chimpanzees in the workplace, will be back with a follow-up. Emerald Nuts also will return, transitioning from a talking unicorn to a visual puzzle that spells out Eagle-eyed Machete Enthusiasts Recognize A Little Druid Networking Under The Stairs.

On the local front, a consortium of Washington state credit unions took a risk and purchased time on the Super Bowl long before most of us thought the Seahawks would reach it. The spot advertises a Web site and includes musicians Winfield Ezell and Jake Nawrocki.

Some may deplore the absence of envelope-pushing. But the Super Bowl has become a family event, and pro football won't attract many young viewers no matter what ads air.

Should I watch or skip the halftime show?

The NFL and networks have tried to make the Super Bowl halftime show appointment TV instead of a glorified bathroom break, because that missed 30 minutes of viewing reduces overall ratings.

The results have ranged from inspiring (U2's Bono) to classic (Paul McCartney) to retroactively bemusing (Michael Jackson and a children's chorus in 1983). Janet Jackson's mammarable MTV act in 2004 permanently traumatized NFL organizers.

This year, the halftime show stars the Rolling Stones. It's a firm nod to traditionalism and would have passed without controversy had a story not leaked about a since-rescinded NFL ban to keep extras over age 45 from auditioning to dance.

Should I stand for the national anthem?

If entertainers Aretha Franklin and Aaron Neville can stand, so can you. But don't dance if you're over 45, and don't watch if you're under. I get the feeling the NFL wants it that way.

Kay McFadden: kmcfadden@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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