It has been roughly four months since the Janet Jackson Super Bowl breast episode, and society is still in one piece. But we’re not out of the woods yet. It’s time for May sweeps, and a one-second glimpse of a partially covered celebrity boob is kids’ stuff compared to what lies ahead in the coming days.
I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but some strippers have double lives. Many of them moonlight as prostitutes. I know this because I saw a special investigative report on the local news during one of television’s recent sweeps periods, where one of broadcast journalism’s undaunted seekers of truth, armed with a hidden camera, posed as a customer, stuffed dollar bills into the garter of an exotic dancer, then listened to her explain that for a few extra bills he could receive more than the usual boom-chicka-boom.
There also seems to be an inordinate amount of interest in plastic surgery during sweeps, especially breast implants. Since television stations are entrusted with serving the public good, I think it’s neat as heck that they’re warning women about the perils of “D Cup Disasters.”
Newscasts are not alone in their pursuit of attention during this critical period of the year, when advertising rates are set based on viewer levels. Just about every sitcom and one-hour drama features some sort of sexual theme. It’s as if, twice a year, the producers of these shows go into heat. If your favorite show has two characters who ordinarily exchange sexual innuendo followed by a laugh track, you can be sure that during sweeps they’ll do so in a hot tub.
And reality shows are titillating by nature. Yet during sweeps, the skirts are higher, the cleavage is deeper, the double entendres quadruple, the flirting is more brazen, the backbiting is more vicious, the jealousy more intensified and the greed more flagrant.
Was Janet worse?
All of this comes against the backdrop of a backlash. When Justin Timberlake’s unfortunate “costume malfunction” took place, Janet Jackson’s breast — whose nipple was covered by a decorative ornament anyway — was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public for all of one second. If you reached for a pork rind, you missed it. Only those with TiVo really got the full effect, over and over again.
All of this begs the question: Just what does FCC chairman Michael Powell think of May sweeps?
Is he shocked? Appalled? Does he worry that our nation’s children will be infected by this semi-annual wave of prurient programming? Or does he shrug it off and say with a straight face, “Anything is O.K., as long as it doesn’t rise to the level of Janet Jackson’s breast”?
The difference is simple. When the country was awash in a sanctimonious frenzy, as it was after the Super Bowl halftime fiasco, Powell expressed outrage because it was safe to do so. He could act like he was astride the moral high ground because much of the public was at least miffed at the incident, and he could create the illusion of showing backbone.
But sweeps mean millions of dollars in revenue to the corporations that own the major television networks, and Powell has a history of doing everything he can to placate the media behemoths save for serving refreshments at shareholders’ meetings. Excesses in sex and violence are rampant on television screens across the nation during sweeps, making the Janet Jackson situation seem almost quaintly mischievous by comparison.
On the hypocrisy meter, where 10 is the highest number, this goes to 11.
Consider the report last year after the May sweeps by the conservative watchdog group known as the Parents Television Council. It monitored the programming during that period from April 24 to May 21, 2003, and offered this overall assessment: “The networks went further than ever before with envelope-pushing plotlines that didn’t just surprise us, they sickened us.”
Besides the fact that this helps to explain the current wave of popularity being enjoyed by comedy clubs, it also shows how Powell and others of his ilk pick and choose their outrage depending on who will be affected financially, and by how much.
Another example given by PTC is an episode of “NYPD Blue” shown on May 13, 2003: “Clark and a woman are shown kissing passionately. They take each other’s shirts off. He pulls her thong off from under her skirt. They have sex against the wall while he holds her up, her legs wrapped around him. Their bare buttocks are shown and they have sex on the bed, her stomach down and he on top of her. One of the most graphic sex scenes ever shown on ‘Blue.’”
I’ll say. It sounds more like a letter to Penthouse.
This is not to suggest that we should sanitize the airwaves in accordance with puritanical guidelines. It is merely to emphasize that moral standards in television are capricious, any notion of fairness is a falsehood, and when you hear a windbag politician or bureaucrat voice disgust at the seepage of sexual content onto our public airwaves, ask him to explain why Janet’s melon is forbidden fruit but a story on the local news about truck stop transsexuals is not.
Michael Ventre is a Los Angeles-based writer and a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.