Tale o' the (missing) tape from the first Super Bowl

Unless you have the right connections, you can't view the 1967 broadcast. In fact, hardly anyone ever has.|

CBS’s production of Super Bowl 50 next Sunday won’t be a television broadcast so much as a sensory invasion.

Forget for a moment the network’s 7-hour pregame lineup. The game itself will be captured and presented in a nearly unfathomable variety of ways, including the use of such things as the EyeVision 360 replay system (which can freeze the action and pivot seamlessly to another high-def perspective), imbedded pylon cams and real-time-generated graphics that will tell us, for example, how far an individual player has run over the course of the game.

Since this is the golden anniversary of America’s biggest sporting event, it would be fun to compare the 2016 telecast with the pared-down show that CBS or NBC offered for the first Super Bowl in January of 1967, when the series officially debuted as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game.

But that probably won’t happen anytime soon. Unless you are a high-level executive at the Paley Center for Media in New York City or the close associate of a mystery man in Pennsylvania, you cannot view a recording of Super Bowl I. In fact, hardly anyone ever has.

“It’s a holy grail for archives, but it is for collectors and the public, too,” said television and radio curator Ron Simon of the Paley Center, an organization that focuses on the cultural, creative and social significance of the broadcast media. “Because it is the first game (in what) becomes an American tradition. And I’m not sure they had any understanding what this game would involve.”

For decades, there was no known copy of Super Bowl I. The networks had made no effort to archive sports programming in those days, and home recording was practically nonexistent.

Then came a breakthrough. In 2005, a man walked into the Paley Center with a briefcase that contained two reels of 2-inch quadruplex videotape. On the tape was that historic game, Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers beating Hank Stram’s Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 to preserve the pride of the NFL.

Because Super Bowl I came so soon after the AFL-NFL merger was announced, and because each of the two leagues had its own TV contract, it remains the only Super Bowl broadcast by two networks. NBC handled the game for the AFL. The Pennsylvania tape is the CBS/NFL version that featured the commentary of Ray Scott, Jack Whitaker, Frank Gifford and Pat Summerall.

The man delivering the reels explained that his father had used professional-quality equipment to capture the broadcast from the feed of WDAU-TV, the CBS affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes Barre, Pa. The tape then sat in an attic for nearly 38 years.

The man, who has chosen to remain anonymous, offered to give the original to the Paley Center in exchange for a pledge to restore it. The center did just that, with help from the New Jersey-based film preservation house Specs Bros.

“They cleaned it and they found edge damage, they also found some oxide flaking off, and they knew that they had to prepare it for one good pass, which they did,” Simon said. “So we got the best transfer we could possibly do on digital tape, and that’s what we have right now.”

The 94-minute master tape resides at Iron Mountain, a massive, climate-controlled vault near Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Halftime and part of the third quarter are missing from the video, as are most of the commercials, which were skipped over by the original recorder. There are a few glitches in picture and sound. Overall, though, the project was a success from a technical aspect. The problem is on the legal front.

The tape’s owner wants to be compensated - well compensated - for his find. He was prompted to restore the footage after reading that Sports Illustrated had estimated its value at $1 million. The NFL initially offered him $30,000 and was rejected. Apparently, that’s where it still stands.

“Nothing really has changed over the years,” Steven Harwood, the Norfolk, Va.-based attorney who represents the tape’s owner, said in an email. “Yes, we spoke to the NFL again this summer and they and we are no closer.”

With the league asserting its authority and the tape’s owner hoping for a payday, the broadcast remains in limbo.

“The NFL takes the position that the game is copyrighted by them and is their property,” Harwood said. “If we were to provide the footage to HBO or YouTube and be compensated for it, and probably whether or not we were compensated for it, the NFL likely would not be very happy and will likely sue my client. My client does not desire to be in litigation with the $12 billion a year revenue machine that is the NFL. Thus we have sought to find a way to reach reasonable terms with the NFL. But that has not happened.”

The NFL, meanwhile, downplays the kerfuffle, noting that it has already aired the entirety of Super Bowl I. NFL Films meticulously spliced together, remastered and color-corrected its own footage and layered it with existing NBC Sports radio audio to re-create the game - all 145 plays.

NFL Network premiered the mash-up on Jan. 15, “enhancing” the game with commentary from 10 or more football analysts. The broadcast was almost universally panned for its wordiness, so the network re-aired the production on Jan. 22 with no commentary. The new version was greeted with more enthusiasm.

The NFL Films creation is adequate, the league says.

Asked for comment on the “saga” of the captive Super Bowl I broadcast, an NFL representative replied: “Not sure what the saga is? It is not the full game. We have every play. We own the copyright.”

The NFL Films version is a perfect solution if your interest is in seeing every play of Super Bowl I. For many, though, from historians to fans of pop culture, a tape of the actual network broadcast would be a more valuable time capsule.

Count Simon, one of the few people to have viewed the CBS tape, among the enthusiasts.

“You really get a sense of a sport beginning to develop,” Simon said. “I mean, some of the technology that we take for granted today, like the instant replay and slow motion, are just a few years old (in 1967). So they’re introduced every time, like ‘VIDEOTAPE’ or ‘SLOW MOTION.’ But even without replaying every play, football plays well on television.”

When you watch CBS’s telecast of Super Bowl 50, you may feel like an omniscient being, able to see every detail of what is unfolding at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Watching CBS do Super Bowl I, you probably felt more like a fan with a decent seat in the Los Angeles Coliseum. It’s easy to miss the action.

“There are important penalties in the game that are never replayed,” Simon said. “The game just goes on. One touchdown is called back because of a penalty for the Packers that would have changed the complexion of the game, but you don’t really have a sense of what that penalty was, because you don’t see it. Then there’s an injury at the very beginning of the game, to the (split) end of the Packers, Boyd Dowler. You just see him in the shadows walking off with a bad shoulder, but you don’t see how he hurt it.”

And then there are the graphics, such as they are. It’s hard to remember a day when your TV screen wasn’t bedazzled with crawls and bugs and logos and a constant readout of information, but that was the state of affairs in 1967.

“There are no graphics,” Simon said. “You don’t know what quarter it is, what the score is, what the time is. And actually, you don’t even know the players that well. The announcers will say the players and then their number. One team (the Packers) doesn’t even have their name on the back of their uniform. The other you could hardly read. But it’s still enjoyable. You still get a sense of the way football was played.”

And the way it was covered. Perhaps one day we’ll all get to make those comparisons ourselves.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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