Tuesday , May 28 2024

Nipplegate Comes to Fine Conclusion

The shoe has finally fallen in the Janet Jackson Super Bowl halftime exposure affair, with the FCC fining CBS $550K for “allowing” the indiscretion (I’m not sure how they could have prevented it short of divine intervention).

Does anyone remember what happened? It seems years ago, the halftime show at the Feb 1 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 through his “Rock Your Body,” sang the fateful lines: “I’m gonna have you naked by the end of this song.”

True to his word, Timberlake then ripped away the self-proclaimed “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 flippantly tossed the incident off as a “wardrobe malfunction.” He’s a funny guy as well as a wardrobe “malfuncter.”

Reaction was swift and heavy-handed. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue distanced the NFL from the proceedings, issuing the following statement: “We were extremely disappointed by the MTV-produced halftime show. It was totally inconsistent with assurances our office was given about the content of the show. The show was offensive, inappropriate and embarrassing to us and our fans. We will change our policy, our people and our processes for managing the halftime entertainment in the future.” And your little dog too.

MTV and CBS both said they had no idea that their halftime show Sunday night would include such a display. Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell called it “a classless, crass and deplorable stunt” and called for, literally, a federal investigation. With potential fines of up to $27,500 PER STATION from the FCC, CBS sat up and took notice.

No fools, 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.” Well, yeah.

After the enormous hue and cry over the event (see our full coverage here), it is amazing how little attention the FCC ruling received just seven months later.

Who cares? Everyone knew there would some kind of fine, and though it is the heaviest fine ever levied against a TV station or network for “indecency,” it’s still a drop on the bucket to CBS.

The news passed through the media causing barely a ripple: the only writer I could find who was particularly worked up about the fine was Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune, who’s in a pissy mood anyway because Bush is going to beat Kerry:

    We can all remember, with shock, the first time we caught sight of a bare breast on network television. It happened just eight months ago, during the Super Bowl halftime show, when singer Justin Timberlake yanked down Janet Jackson’s top and exposed, for a fleeting instant, an item of flesh never before seen by a broadcast audience.

    What’s that you say? That wasn’t the first time? Hmm. I take it viewers got a glimpse of an unmistakably female chest back in 2002, on CBS'”CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Which would make Jackson’s the second one.

    No? There was, it seems, a previous incident when actress Drew Barrymore flashed David Letterman. And what’s this? Meredith Baxter displayed her charms in a 1994 network TV movie.

    Well, these things didn’t happen in the wholesome days before Bill Clinton. Huh? They did? Students of “Charlie’s Angels” report a confirmed sighting of one of Farrah Fawcett’s prize assets back in .. can this be right? 1976? And Valerie Perrine gave an eyeful to viewers of PBS–PBS!–in 1973.

Good point, Steve, but there are numerous factors you are fudging: time of day (the rules are much more lax after 10pm), the intent of the “exposure” (education, plot context, flat-out titilation), and obviously, the extent of the response (a shitload of people got mighty worked up about Janet) – so while it wasn’t the first, it was clearly the most egregious, publicized, and devoid of mitigating circumstances breast flash in TV history. The flash was meant to shock, and by golly, it did.

Chapman continues:

    the fact that CBS surprised millions of viewers last Feb. 1 doesn’t mean federal intervention is required.

    We don’t expect the federal government, after all, to prevent offensive nudity in Time magazine, or the Chicago Tribune, or even Highlights for Children. We rely on the informal contract between these publications and their readers to assure that people get more or less what they want, with no rude shocks mixed in.

    ….The FCC, however, assumes that only censors based in Washington can offer parents protection against the baser impulses of the entertainment industry. FCC Chairman Michael Powell, in announcing this decision, said the 1st Amendment is “not a license to thrill. `Anything goes’ is not an acceptable mantra for those that elect to earn their profit using the public’s airwaves.”

    The “public airwaves” rationale is supposed to explain why the government may abridge freedom of speech–if it takes place on TV and radio. But newspaper delivery people use public roads, and magazines are transported with the help of federal air traffic control, and that doesn’t mean print publications are subject to federal censorship. The American people don’t have to rely on Washington bureaucrats to induce broadcasters to serve their needs and interests. The profit motive serves that purpose quite well, thank you.

Um, horseshit Steve. Unlike any other media, including print, satellite, cable or the Internet, the airwaves are inherently limited in capacity and owned by the public and available without mediation to anyone with the equipment to receive the signals, therefore it is entirely right and proper for the public to determine – and its representatives in government to implement and enforce – standards of what is and is not appropriate material: that the media, in other words, can be directed on a meta level and as a people it is not inevitable that we accept “anything goes” from our media, at least our media broadcast over the inherently limited public airwaves.

It wasn’t the actual exposure that caused the intensity of the reaction anyway, it was that this clearly transgressive incident acted as the straw that broke the camel’s back, the catalyst for the public to say, “Wait a minute, we don’t have to put up with this if we don’t want to, and we don’t want to.”

The FCC was merely responding – at a delay that causes the response to be monumentally anticlimactic – to this demand, as is its function. The rule were there, the FCC was just finally forced by public outcry to enforce them.

Case closed, lesson learned, time to move on – the public certainly has.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted, Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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