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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

For years, network broadcasters have kept the Super Bowl free of political advocacy commercials, but this week CBS reversed its stance. CBS is planning to air a Super Bowl ad dealing with abortion.

NPR's Sam Sanders explains how football's biggest game has become the site of another sort of contest.

SAM SANDERS: The Super Bowl is supposed to be that one big, fun event each year when everyone can gather around the television for a good time. Even the commercials are supposed to be entertaining.

Ms. LISA BRENNEMAN: You're having a Super Bowl party to watch, like, commercials about beer and stuff that you're already going to buy, and nachos, you know?

SANDERS: That's Lisa Brenneman, a football fan meeting with friends at a sports bar in Washington, D.C. She and her friends say they look forward to commercials with dancing animals and goofy jokes. They're not looking to debate political issues during a Super Bowl party.

Ms. BRENNEMAN: That's not really where your level of thought is.

SANDERS: But this year, Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group that opposes abortion, wants to inject a serious topic into the Super Bowl. The group plans to air a commercial featuring Florida Gators' star quarterback Tim Tebow.

The Heisman Trophy winner appears in the ad with his mother, Pam. The two talk about her choice not to abort Tebow when she became ill during her 1987 pregnancy on a mission trip in the Philippines. Doctors urged her to end her pregnancy for medical reasons. She refused.

Focus on the Family is paying for the 30-second spot. Ads are selling for up to $3 million. Focus on the Family's spokesman, Gary Schneeberger, says the group's ad is not political.

Mr. GARY SCHNEEBERGER (Spokesman, Focus on the Family): There's nothing controversial about it, there's nothing political about it. It is simply a very inspirational 30 seconds about celebrating life and celebrating families.

SANDERS: In the past, CBS has refused to run advocacy ads from groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the United Church of Christ and moveon.org. Abortion rights groups pointed out that long-standing ban. They want CBS to pull the Tebow ad. They also warn that CBS might alienate viewers by showing divisive commercials. As the controversy grew louder, CBS issued a new policy: the broadcaster now says it accepts advocacy ads, that are produced, quote, "reasonably." CBS' new policy may reflect the tough economy.

Scott Kelley, a sports marketing expert, thinks demand for Super Bowl ads is off. Before, broadcasters had no financial need to accept controversial commercials.

Professor SCOTT KELLEY (Director, Center for Sports Marketing, University of Kentucky): They had demand for ad time that typically exceeded the ad spots they had. And so, they could avoid the controversy, if at all possible, and didn't have to go down that road.

SANDERS: Back at the sports bar in Washington, D.C., Joseph Spilatro says he's not eager to see broadcasters open the door to controversial ads.

Mr. JOSEPH SPILATRO: I expect them to be funny and fun. I'm not really wanting to watch issue-based commercials during a Super Bowl game.

SANDERS: Whether these beer commercials are actually funny is yet another controversy.

Sam Sanders, NPR News, Washington.

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