Super Bowl XLVI, NBC Production, and the Blame Game

Posted on February 6, 2012 | in Defects, Error-Proofing, Football, Sports, Standardized Work | by

Eight years after the infamous Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” the Super Bowl halftime show again gets attention for the wrong reasons. Joining Madonna as a guest singer on stage at halftime of Super Bowl XLVI, singer M.I.A. made an obscene gesture toward a camera and allegedly use language unsuitable for children.

Because of the Janet Jackson incident the networks airing the Super Bowl (and every other major sporting event) are required to rigorously test their delay system so such gestures or actions can be caught and blocked or blurred out before being transmitted to satellites and households.

Well…the gesture was transmitted to satellites and households anyway. So what went wrong?

“The NFL, which produces the show, blamed a failure in NBC’s delay system for allowing the gesture to be seen.”

So what happened with the delay system?

“The screen briefly went blurred after M.I.A.’s gesture in what was a late attempt — by less than a second — to cut out the camera shot.

“‘We apologize for the inappropriate gesture that aired during halftime,’ NBC spokesman Christopher McCloskey said. ‘It was a spontaneous gesture that our delay system caught late.'”

Okay, the gesture WAS caught, just a touch slow. That said, a system that should have been vetted over and over failed on the grandest stage, and the blame game commences.

All of this – the delay system the need to have it in the first place – is done in the name of prevention. It’s used to catch problems before they get out. They’re a temporary fix, like putting duct tape around a hole in a pipe.

M.I.A. is probably a bit of a polarizing figure, seeing how she’s an international recording superstar. Even Madonna is a bit of a risque figure. Both could be prone to unpredictable behavior, but so can any human being. Knowing this, it was probably important to check that delay system and then check it again. Perhaps work with the performers themselves to make sure nothing questionable would occur?

Spokesman Brian McCarthy said M.I.A. did not do anything similar during rehearsals and the league had no reason to believe she would pull something like that during the actual show.

Unpredictable behavior, indeed. A process depending on unpredictable inputs will create unpredictable outputs. NBC and the NFL thought the participants wouldn’t behave as they did.

But what if you could keep the problem from occurring at all? Instead of a temporary fix, what if the issue was eradicated?

In autonomous management and Six Sigma, variations in process inputs is what we want to eradicate. Reduce input variation, and you reduce chance for output variation. You identify problems then use root cause analysis (such as five-whys) to find the cause and repair it.

With the Super Bowl Halftime Show, probably the ideal way to eradicate the unpredictability of performers is to eliminate having live performers altogether. Seeing how that’s not ideal – who wants to see robots, pre-recorded music, or pre-recorded video? – the NFL and NBC had to balance the fine line between cutting-edge performer and “safe” performers such as Paul McCartney or Bruce Springsteen.

NBC and the NFL ran the risk by having Madonna and M.I.A. perform, and the risks bit them.


To learn: Instead of simply preventing known problems from popping up, find ways to eliminate the problems from occurring in the first place. When improving processes and vetting variation, look to eradicate before prevention.

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2 Responses to “Super Bowl XLVI, NBC Production, and the Blame Game”

  1. Mark Graban says:

    If “M.I.A.” is a “superstar” then I’m definitely out of touch.

    I can’t believe they couldn’t be more effective with the “seven-second delay” that’s used by talk radio all the time. But the “dump button” requires a human response and is it possible that somebody was “asleep at the switch” in this case? I’m not blaming the individual, I’m just saying that when a system is designed to rely on 100% human inspection, that system is going to fail.

    • Chad Walters says:

      I’ve never seen the system used for the 7-second delay, but having someone at the switch adds a second source of unpredictable variability besides the performer.

      Add to all of this the fact that a distasteful occurrence is kind of like “I can’t define it but I’ll know it when I see it” subjectivity, and the unpredictability goes up even further.

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