CBS and the FCC appear to be at loggerheads over the infamous 2004 Super Bowl halftime show exposure of Janet Jackson’s right breast, affectionately known throughout the land as Nipplegate.
The Federal Communications Commission concluded Wednesday in a punctilious 16-page order that it was correct to decide laws against indecent broadcasts were violated by “the offensive spectacle of a man tearing off a woman’s clothing on stage” during the broadcast, and that their decision to fine CBS stations $550,000 for the offense would stand.
The Eye network had asked that the decision be reconsidered on the grounds that pulling off a portion of Janet Jackson’s bustier to reveal her breast was not indecent, and that they weren’t legally responsible for the halftime show anyway, which was produced by MTV.
“CBS has apologized to the American people many times for the inappropriate and unexpected half-time incident during the 2004 Super Bowl,” the network said in a statement. “We have taken steps to make certain it will never happen again. But we continue to disagree with the FCC’s finding that the broadcast was legally indecent.”
The FCC countered, “The Commission rejects CBS’ argument that the FCC’s indecency framework is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, both on its face and as applied to the halftime show.”
CBS concluded in a huff, “We will continue to pursue all remedies necessary to affirm our legal rights, and so today’s decision by the FCC is just another step in that process,” which hardly sounds conciliatory.
CBS, along with the other three major networks and their affiliate organizations, is already in court seeking to overturn a new round of indecency penalties proposed by the FCC in March.
Indecency is a very hot topic in government. There are currently two indecency bills pending, one in the Senate, another in the house; the FCC has increased fines to stations that air indecent programming, and is proposing for the first time fines to individual performers for violations in addition to levies against the offending broadcast organizations.
The still expanding ripples of Nipplegate began at the Feb 1, 2004 Super Bowl in Houston, televised on CBS, in which an already tawdry pageant of bumping-and-grinding and crotch-grabbing entered uncharted territory when Justin Timberlake, flirting with Jackson throughout his “Rock Your Body” performance, sang the fateful line, “I’m gonna have you naked by the end of this song.”
True to his word, Timberlake then ripped away “Miss Nasty’s” right breastplate, exposing her for all the world to see save for a star-like device we have subsequently come to know as a “nipple shield.”
Though Jackson was exposed for only a moment before covering herself, the incident — which might have passed with relatively little hoopla in an earlier era due to its brevity and the general commotion — was recorded by millions of Americans on their handy new TiVOs, spread almost instantly across the Internet (where it became the most searched-for image ever), and replayed in slow motion ad infinitum (with strategic masking) by cable news channels that could scarcely contain their glee over the titillation of it all.
Timberlake added an instantly classic new term to the lexicon when he described the incident as a “wardrobe malfunction.”
MTV and CBS both said they had no idea that their halftime show Sunday night would include such a display. Federal Communications Commission then-chairman Michael Powell called it “a classless, crass and deplorable stunt” and called for — literally — a federal investigation.
Jackson’s record label Virgin released her single “Just a Little While” the following day, weeks ahead of schedule. Jackson apologized not once but twice, saying that her red lace bra was not supposed to yield to Timberlake’s manly tug, and that “in the end it all went wrong.”
Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein conveyed the FCC’s attitude toward the event well in a separate statement Wednesday: “The Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show was arguably one of the most shocking incidents in the history of live broadcast television. Indeed, the Super Bowl was the most-watched program of the entire 2003-04 television season and American viewers, collectively, expressed their disappointment and disapproval. The Commission, entrusted with the responsibility to execute faithfully broadcast indecency laws, responded swiftly and appropriately.”
Having drawn the line in the sand at what it perceives as the public’s insistence, the FCC is not about to back away from it. Neither, it appears, is CBS.