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The Big Game’s Halftime Show: From “Bathroom Break” to Must-Watch TV

Senior Advisor Tod MacKenzie shares how a big idea helped change American TV Culture forever

On January 15, 1967, when Green Bay met the Kansas City Chiefs in the first “Big Game,” the featured entertainment was the Ana-Hi-Steppers drill team from the local high school.

Nothing gets a crowd riled up like the Anaheim High School drill team.

Or perhaps Elvis Presto? Or the Mouseketeers?

In the first two decades of the “Big Game,” these were among the headlining acts during the halftime show. A time slot now revered as the pinnacle of broadcast entertainment had humble origins before an upstart group of innovative advertisers shook up the format – and changed American television culture forever.

Enter Tod MacKenzie.

MacKenzie, who currently serves as a Senior Advisor at Brian Communications, was instrumental in the team that pitched and developed the first “modern” halftime show as we know it. In 1992, he was the head of public affairs for Frito-Lay, and the company saw an opportunity to leverage the dead time during halftime, jokingly referred to as “America’s Bathroom Break.”

“We couldn’t believe that everyone just accepted that people would get up and leave during such a high-profile timeslot,” MacKenzie said. That’s where the thinking began.


Big Game Stadium


A Big Idea Takes Root

At the time, Frito–Lay, which is owned by PepsiCo, was a company looking to grow. PepsiCo’s premier product, Pepsi, was unable to get involved with the NFL due to the league’s relationship with competitor Coca-Cola. However, the NFL did not have an official snack sponsor, leaving the potential for Frito-Lay to approach the league with an idea to reimagine the halftime show. MacKenzie and his colleagues Roger Enrico, CEO of Frito-Lay, Jerry Noonan, CMO of Frito-Lay, and Jay Coleman, an entertainment marketer, proposed a performance that would entice viewers to remain engaged as they restocked their beer and grabbed more wings. Michael Jackson was Pepsi’s most high-profile surrogate, and Coleman reached out to his team to gauge their interest in a Frito-Lay sponsored appearance. Jackson’s team was on board….

…but the NFL was not. They balked at the idea, taken aback by the implication that a halftime model that had worked for 20+ years needed changing. That didn’t deter MacKenzie, Enrico, Noonan and Coleman. They were determined to find a home for their idea, which they hoped to use as a platform to launch a new bite-sized Dorito product.

The group began shopping around their proposal to different television networks, offering a counterprogramming block that could draw viewers away from the Big Game. The problem was that the Big 3 networks routinely transferred ownership of the event, and each feared alienating the NFL.

Enter FOX.

At this point, FOX was a brash young network, eager to break into the upper echelon of broadcast media. They had no skin in the game, and eagerly saw the opportunity in shaking up the status quo. At the time, their show “In Living Color,” was rising in the ratings with emerging talent like The Wayans Brothers and Jim Carrey (and later Jennifer Lopez and Jamie Foxx). FOX planned a counterprogramming block, aired during halftime, that featured a live telecast of “In Living Color,” sponsored by Frito-Lay.

Thus, “Dorito’s Zap Time” was born.


A Ratings Smash

Frito-Lay promoted “Zap Time” heavily and ended up attracting 22 million curious viewers. The week following the Big Game, the NFL came back to Frito-Lay and began discussions over how they could sponsor a halftime television event the next year…with featured performer Michael Jackson. Since then, every halftime since 1993 has attracted an A-List entertainment act, creating an enormous ratings bonanza that has, at times, eclipsed the game itself.

As MacKenzie reflects back on his role in bringing this idea to life, he notes the importance of being innovative and perseverant: “No matter the industry, you need to stay dynamic, topical and bold. Give the people what they want and challenge the norm.”

From the Anaheim High School drill team to Michael Jackson to acts like Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen and U2, the halftime show has clearly shown it is here to stay, only getting bigger and better as the years go on.

A big idea. A driven team. The right connections – that’s how you make an impact.

(Interestingly enough, what didn’t make an impact was the bite-sized Dorito….that was off the market a few months after its debut. Not every idea sticks!)