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Federal regulators on Wednesday fined CBS a record $550,000 for Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” which exposed the singer’s breast during this year’s Super Bowl halftime show.
The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to slap each of the 20 CBS-owned television stations with the maximum indecency penalty of $27,500. The total penalty of $550,000 is the largest fine levied against a television broadcaster. Most of the FCC’s bigger fines have been against radio stations.
“As countless families gathered around the television to watch one of our nation’s most celebrated events, they were rudely greeted with a halftime show stunt more fitting of a burlesque show,” said FCC Chairman Michael Powell. “The show, clearly intended to push the limits of prime time television.”
The commission decided not to fine CBS’ more than 200 affiliate stations, which also aired the show but are not owned by the network’s parent company, Viacom.
The two Democrats on the five-member commission said the fine should have been higher. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said the fine amounted to a “slap on the wrist” and suggested that the agency could have sent a stronger message about indecency by reprimanding CBS’ affiliates as well.
MTV, a Viacom subsidiary, produced the Feb. 1 halftime show, which featured Jackson and singer Justin Timberlake performing a racy duet. At the end, Timberlake ripped off a piece of Jackson’s black leather top, exposing her right breast to a TV audience of about 90 million.
Timberlake blamed a “wardrobe malfunction,” and CBS was quick to apologize to viewers. The breast-baring song generated a record number of complaints to the FCC — more than 500,000.
CBS said it was extremely disappointed with the decision.
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“While we regret that the incident occurred and have apologized to our viewers, we continue to believe that nothing in the Super Bowl broadcast violated indecency laws,” the network said in a statement. “Furthermore, our investigation proved that no one in our company had any advance knowledge about the incident.”
Viacom has said it will fight any fines leveled against its stations for the Jackson performance. Over the summer, Viacom co-president Leslie Moonves said a fine would be “grossly unfair” and promised a court challenge.
Federal law bars radio and non-cable television stations from airing references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children may be tuning in. Once a complaint is made to the FCC, the agency determines whether the broadcast was indecent.
Within days of the Jackson incident, lawmakers on Capitol Hill began grumbling about smut on TV, and both houses passed legislation — still pending in Congress — that would raise indecency fines. The House has voted to raise the maximum indecency fine to $500,000. The Senate voted to increase the top fine to $275,000 per indecent incident, with a cap of $3 million per day.
The FCC launched a crackdown on indecency soon after the Super Bowl, resulting in several high-profile fines. Among them: a $755,000 fine against Clear Channel for graphic drug and sex talk on a “Bubba the Love Sponge” radio program and a record $1.75 million fine, also against Clear Channel, for indecency complaints against Howard Stern and other radio personalities.
Television networks also began taking pre-emptive action by implementing broadcast delays so censors could scrub anything deemed too racy. CBS, for example, aired the Grammy awards ceremony a week after the Super Bowl with a five-minute delay. More recently, the NFL kicked off its season with a live, pregame show on ABC that was aired with a 10-second delay.