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Tuned In, Turned Off and Put Out

Exposure of Janet Jackson's breast on the Super Bowl show marks a new low in raunch on TV, critics say.

February 03, 2004|Elizabeth Jensen, Geoff Boucher and Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writers

The day after a heart-stopping Super Bowl and the day before a series of make-or-break Democratic presidential primary elections, these questions tore through America:

"Did you see it?"

"Did she do it on purpose?"

"What did the producers know and when did they know it?"

The 2-second exposure of Janet Jackson's right breast during the Super Bowl halftime show in Houston on Sunday brought hand-wringing from cultural critics, a strained explanation by Jackson's co-performer ("wardrobe malfunction"), outrage from federal regulators and apologies from the two corporate network siblings -- MTV and CBS -- responsible for the broadcast.

And finally, Monday afternoon, Jackson confessed that she, without the knowledge of the producers, had cooked up the stunt after final rehearsals. If so, she apparently was in cahoots with her performing partner, Justin Timberlake, who was supposed to have only ripped away one layer of clothing instead of two, a Jackson representative told Associated Press.

The singer, whose camp hoped her Super Bowl appearance would draw attention back to a star who has been away from the spotlight in recent years, released a brief apology: "It was not my intention that [the stunt] go as far as it did."

In a nation growing used to the raunchiest fare on cable and, increasingly, on broadcast TV, the moment appeared to represent a tipping point of sorts. Jackson -- whose first album since 2001 is due out March 30 -- chose to expose herself in front of an audience averaging nearly 90 million, jolting one of the last surviving mass-media events in an ever more fragmented broadcasting environment.

The episode became the newest platform for Americans to decry the increasing sexualizing of media. It also raised more calls for the Federal Communications Commission to require broadcasters to institute talk radio-style delays in some live programs.

Critics found more to object to on Sunday than just the Jackson exposure. During the game, commercials for competing erectile dysfunction products went nuance-for-nuance, earning CBS millions of dollars but creating awkward moments for parents and children watching at home. A pay-per-view halftime special on another network featured two teams of lingerie-wearing beauties. And if that wasn't enough, the limits of live sports TV were pushed in another forum Sunday: Laker center Shaquille O'Neal, complaining in a postgame interview on KCAL -- a corporate cousin of CBS -- about officiating, used such crude language that the National Basketball Assn. suspended him from Monday night's game.

Sunday's moment also was amplified and dissected in the new echo chambers of 21st century entertainment technology. Across America fingers were flying on TiVo remotes to summon slow-motion footage. (The company said the Jackson-Timberlake stunt drew a 180% spike in viewership, the biggest it has ever measured.) And within minutes, computer keyboards were lighting up as the jury room of the Internet was used to debate and devour the latest pop culture candy.

Timberlake was performing one of his hits with Jackson when he reached across her leather gladiator outfit and pulled the covering off her right breast. CBS cameras almost immediately cut away, and none of the three announcers commented. The initial explanation -- Timberlake's claim of "wardrobe malfunction" -- was immediately assaulted. Cynics felt the shock that seemed to register on the faces of Jackson and Timberlake looked more like stagecraft than real surprise. All Timberlake would say in his own statement was that the event was "not intentional" -- a claim apparently contradicted by Jackson Monday.

In Washington, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell said his agency would investigate to determine who, if anybody, could be held accountable. "I am outraged," Powell said in a statement issued before Jackson's apology.

The chairman of the House panel that oversees the FCC said he will press ahead with a bill that would dramatically increase fines against television stations for such offenses.

"I am appalled with last night's shameless stunt during the Super Bowl," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee. "With my bill ... networks will do more than just apologize for airing such brazen material; they will be paying big bucks for their offenses."

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