The one-second flash of Janet Jackson’s breast at the Super Bowl could end up putting the brakes on years of plunging standards in the down-and-dirty entertainment industry.
“This particular event might be, for the moment, the straw that broke the camel’s back on the patience of the audience,” said talk show host Carson Daly, a veteran presence on MTV, which produced the offending halftime show. “Tolerance of this sort of sexual imagery may have reached its peak.”
Unlike other milestones of indecency — rock star Bono using the f-word on the 2003 Golden Globes, or Madonna and Britney Spears tongue-kissing on MTV — Jackson chose to reveal herself before the largest TV audience of the year.
And she did it precisely when federal authorities are mulling a crackdown on broadcast indecency.
The Jackson case could have a “galvanizing effect” on the move to toughen standards, said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who has complained his commission has been toothless in responding to complaints.
At the very least, he said, it punctures the argument of people who say that those who are bothered by things on TV just shouldn’t watch.
“How do you turn off the Super Bowl?” Copps asked.
“There is going to be a national conversation on this,” said Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, which has long complained about sex and violence on the tube. “I think what this has done is sensitized the public.”
The fallout continued Thursday:
- CBS, already facing an FCC probe for the halftime show, said it would broadcast Sunday’s Grammy Awards with a five-minute delay to allow time to edit out any offensive images. Jackson had been scheduled to appear on the show, but her publicist, Steven Huvane, said Thursday she would not attend.
- A banker from Knoxville, Tenn., filed a class action lawsuit against Jackson, dance partner Justin Timberlake, CBS, halftime show producers MTV and the networks’ parent company, Viacom. Terri Carlin said the “sexually explicit conduct” by the performers caused millions of people to “suffer outrage, anger, embarrassment and serious injury.”
- NBC cut a scene from Thursday’s “ER” that showed an elderly patient’s breast, saying the current atmosphere made it too difficult for affiliates to air the segment.
- ABC said it would add a delay for its Feb. 29 broadcast of the Academy Awards. TNT also said it was considering a delay for the entertainment portion of the NBA All-Star Game, featuring Beyonce, OutKast and Christina Aguilera.
- The NFL cut a halftime production number by one of Timberlake’s ’N Sync bandmates, JC Chasez, planned for Sunday’s Pro Bowl in Honolulu, because Chasez’s song contained the words “horny” and “naughty.” He’ll be replaced by hula dancers and local singers.
- AOL spokesman Jim Whitney declined to comment on reports that the company would seek a refund of the $7.5 million it paid to sponsor the halftime show.
A familiar problemShock and titillation in popular culture is nothing new.
From Elvis Presley’s scandalously swiveling hips to Ozzy Osbourne’s bleep-fest on his MTV show, performers have banked on outrageousness to excite and incite an audience.
These days, two words you never would have heard on TV or the radio 10 years ago — which rhyme with itch and pass — are everyday occurrences.
TV executives are also desperate to reach a young audience; it’s no coincidence that CBS and the NFL turned to MTV, the network of “Punk’d” and “Jackass,” to produce its halftime show, said social historian Neal Gabler.
“In a sense, they asked for this,” Gabler said. “This is not something that happened out of the blue.”
Entertainers may be unaware of a growing repulsion over content, Bozell said. The PTC’s membership shot up after the FCC ruled that Bono’s f-word didn’t violate indecency rules because it was used as an adjective and not a noun or verb, he said.
In flashing her breast at the Super Bowl, Jackson picked a broadcast that was seen by nearly 90 million people, compared with the 11 million people who saw Madonna and Spears’ liplock live.
Family-friendly television?Sunday’s audience included millions of parents and childrens watching together — parents who aren’t used to MTV, and who might already have been uncomfortable by the skimpy costumes and suggestive dancing leading up to Jackson’s finale, Bozell said.
“Parents wouldn’t know to turn their television off before that happened,” first lady Laura Bush said in an interview with CNN on Thursday.
Some, however, are disgusted by the reaction, noting the show came amidst a spectacle feature bone-crunching violence, sexed-up cheerleaders and TV ads for pills to cure impotence.
“Give me a break,” former NBA star Charles Barkley said. “There are a lot more trashier things on television than Janet Jackson.”
What about those ads?One father who watched the game with his 12-year-old son said the Jackson dance passed uncommented upon, but he was caught short when the boy asked, “Dad, what’s erectile dysfunction?”
Like those ads, the political context can’t be ignored.
Congress held hearings last week on indecency standards and legislation was proposed sharply increasing fines on broadcasters. The FCC last week also proposed a record $755,000 fine against Clear Channel Communications for a “Bubba the Love Sponge” program that included graphic discussions about sex and drugs.
The Washington rumblings explain some of the network skittishness, such as the new delay systems and the “ER” editing, said Martin Kaplan, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications.
“The excision of that (‘ER’) scene shows that people have not grown up enough to make a distinction between artistic expression and vulgarity for profit,” Kaplan said. “That’s what happens in the context of a witch hunt.”
Social historian Gabler doubts that there will be any long-term change in broadcast standards. The line between what is acceptable and not is always changing, but, historically, it never retreats, he said.
Daly said he believed the competition between TV networks would prevent any real change.
“I grew up in California,” he said. “Every time there was a major earthquake, people would come in to school and say, ‘my parents say we’re going to move.’ But three or four months later, nobody’s gone anywhere. Complacency sets in and you forget about it.”