Super Bowl: 10 years after the Janet Jackson "Nipplegate"

A decade later, what kind of impact has the most infamous Super Bowl halftime show had on television?

It's been 10 years since Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake introduced us to the term "wardrobe malfunction."

It's been 10 years since Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake introduced us to the term "wardrobe malfunction."

Ten years ago, millions of men, women and children were enjoying a nice, wholesome rendition of surprise guest Justin Timberlake's "Rock Your Body" as Janet Jackson pranced along the stage with the young heartthrob in tow. The pair occasionally paused to grind against each other suggestively, bringing the Super Bowl XXXV's halftime show to a close. At the performance's end, Timberlake punctuated the closing line of the tune—I gotta have you naked by the end of this song—by tearing off a piece of Jackson's costume to reveal her nipple-pierced breast for 9/16 of a second. A small army of viewers would rise up to the Federal Communications Commission with complaints, sparking a crackdown on "indecency" in broadcasting.


It was an incident that, in addition to launching millions of Monday-morning water-cooler conversations, incurred record-high fines, court cases, a bill in Congress, the inclusion of wardrobe malfunction in the lexicon and the creation of YouTube. In the subsequent weeks, Jackson was banned from attending the Grammys, her singles and music videos were blacklisted from multiple radio stations and music channels, and she was forced by Super Bowl broadcaster CBS to release an apology video. Timberlake emerged from the incident largely unscathed, as he was allowed to attend and perform at the Grammys, suffered no blacklist and was never required to apologize for the "wardrobe malfunction." Fear of another exposed breast caused the next six Super Bowl halftime shows to feature all-male music acts, when the production had previously never gone more than a year without including a female act.


But it was FCC chairman Michael Powell, bolstered by more than 540,000 complaints—85 percent of which CBS claimed came from activist groups like the Parents Television Council—that used the incident to launch a reinforced mission to punish indecency in broadcast television. Powell and the FCC fined the network and 20 of its affiliate stations with a record $550,000 fine. Other networks began editing their content for fear of facing similar penalties. An episode of ER was re-edited to exclude the appearance of the breast of an elderly woman who had suffered an injury. Networks balked at airing an unedited version of Saving Private Ryan on Veteran's Day, even though they had done so in previous years, for fear that the language in the film would incur fines. Live events such as awards shows and sporting events instituted tape delays as long as five minutes. The FCC also turned its eye to daytime television, causing the networks to avoid any risqué scenes in soap operas.


The FCC enforces standards of of obscenity, indecency and profanity on public airwaves (note that it does not regulate violence). It does not monitor stations or programs for questionable content, but rather, responds to complaints by investigating the claims and, if necessary, issuing penalties. There are vague definitions of what constitutes obscene, indecent and profane content on the FCC website, in fact stating that "indecency" is measured by the contemporary community standards of the medium. The redefinition of the type of material that the FCC was now deeming offensive is ultimately what lead it to have its penalties overturned by the courts. The $550,000 fine that was issued to CBS and Viacom was struck down by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011, and the Supreme Court refused to review the decision in 2012. Another case, involving so-called "fleeting expletives" uttered by Cher and Nicole Richie at the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards, saw the FCC's fines again reversed for being unconstitutionally vague.


In the wake of these reversals, the FCC has elected to refocus its efforts. Resources are now focused on fining repeat offenders rather than isolated incidents. Given the changes to the television landscape over the past decade, the FCC is also looking to readjust its outlook, having requested feedback from the public regarding their feelings on regulating profanity and nudity in 2013. For their part, the broadcasters are insistent that they have to be able to include racier content in an effort to keep up in an increasingly competitive market that includes cable networks and Internet content. In their efforts to compete with less regulated content, networks have skirted the rules by featuring pixelated nudity and bleeped fucks in primetime broadcasts. In the 2010-2011 season, network affiliates pulled just 28 percent of the viewing. While a stated goal of the FCC is to protect standards of decency for children and families, those audiences are more and more likely to be engaging with cable channels, Internet content and video games, all platforms that do not fall under the FCC's guidelines.


ESPN Magazine spoke with Powell this month, and the former FCC chairman and current lobbyist for the cable TV industry acknowledged the overblown nature of the response to Jackson's bare breast and characterized it as "the last gasp" in attempting to control a changing media landscape. Whether it's Miley Cyrus twerking at last year's VMAs or Beyoncé dancing in a leather thong at this year's Grammys, nothing has matched the outrage generated by Janet and Justin's 2004 wardrobe malfunction. And with the "contemporary community standards" constantly shifting to adapt to the widening media landscape, it's hard to imagine that anything else will.



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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)

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