The Hypocrisy Bowl

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It was meant to be a super Sunday like any other. About 143 million people gathered to enjoy a wholesome evening of giant men knocking the living hell out of one another, cheered on by busty dancing women in skimpy uniforms, with occasional messages from crude talking animals entreating them to buy intoxicants.

Instead, something offensive happened. In a jaw-dropping denouement to the MTV-produced halftime show, Justin Timberlake sang, "I gotta have you naked by the end of this song," reached across Janet Jackson's black leather bustier and exposed — well, yes. But he exposed more than that. What the Super Bowl incident (Nipplegate? Boobytrap? The Tempest in a C Cup?) also revealed was the hypocrisies of the entertainment and sports industries, the commercial culture and even the viewing public.

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After what Timberlake euphemized with the NASA-like "wardrobe malfunction," the accusations flew like flags on a late hit. The NFL blamed CBS and MTV. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) blamed the networks not just for the "reveal" but also for a halftime show that included rapper Nelly grabbing his crotch and sexual grinding between Timberlake and Jackson. The networks blamed Jackson, who said she cooked up the stunt at the last minute. Nonetheless, after the game the MTV website crowed that "fans of Janet Jackson and her pasties were definitely in the right place." (Actually, Jackson's right breast was adorned by a metal "nipple shield," the event's other gift to the lexicon.) Jackson apologized but blamed her outfit; she said it was supposed to reveal a red bra, which "collapsed."

The defenseless undergarment, alas, could not speak up for itself. The league said, however, that it had concerns about the tone of the show, and Timberlake's song, that MTV never addressed. "MTV did not live up to their end of the deal," said NFL executive vice president Joe Browne. "They told us, 'We'll address your concerns,' and then things never changed." But MTV Networks chairman and CEO Tom Freston said the league and the networks together reviewed the songs, costumes and choreography. He noted that MTV also produced the halftime show three years ago. "If you go back and look," he said, "you'll see the artists doing similar types of music with similar choreography. You even have guys in 'N Sync doing crotch grabbing. But none of it fell under the microscope." (CBS executives refused requests to speak for this story.)

MTV can make a case that the show, minus the pop-out, was not beyond the pale for TV. Just look how far MTV has moved the pale. At its Video Music Awards (V.M.A.), rapper Lil' Kim has sported a pastie-accessorized outfit that showed no less than Jackson, while Britney Spears has stripped down to a flesh-colored body stocking and has kissed Madonna on her publicity-hungry lips. And MTV has what CBS and the NFL want badly: young, especially young male, viewers.

The Super Bowl fiasco showed how tough it is to assemble a giant mainstream spectacle for today's niched audience. Even the audience reaction ranged from deep offense to bemusement. Bill Cleaver, of Pittsboro, N.C., watched the performance with his wife Julia and their daughter Annie, 10. "I'm not a Boy Scout," he said, "but I know in public what is appropriate manners and what is vulgarity." Then again, TiVo, the digital-video-recorder maker, said the event was the most replayed ever among its users. In a TIME/CNN poll, 47% of respondents said the incident marked "a new low in bad taste"; yet 68% said the government should not fine CBS. Attempting to please a torn audience has put all the big networks through growing, or rather shrinking, pains. Under fire from conservatives, CBS last year canceled its mini-series The Reagans, although it claimed the cancellation was not caused by the pressure. This, combined with the network's apparent quid pro quo offer to Jessica Lynch — a host of Viacom deals in exchange for her story of capture in Iraq — and reports of a similar offer to obtain a Michael Jackson interview, has put CBS's credibility at a low point.

But you can't eat credibility, and CBS is the most watched network on TV largely because it has rejuvenated its audience with edgier shows. Survivor is MTV's The Real World redone as a game show, and 33 million people watched the post — Super Bowl debut of Survivor: All-Stars, with the return of player Richard Hatch, who spent much of the episode nude (albeit pixelated). CSI, TV's most popular drama, may be the goriest show in broadcast. So what's a ratings-greedy mogul to do?

The answer, say some TV insiders: Be very afraid. The scandal awakened the FCC, which had been lenient on both standards and corporate consolidation under chairman Michael Powell but announced an investigation into the halftime show. This week House and Senate committees will hold hearings on broadcast decency. So the story swung from action (video delays instituted on the Grammy and Oscar ceremonies) to overreaction. Under pressure from affiliates, NBC cut a scene from Thursday's ER that briefly showed the breast of an 80-year-old heart-attack patient. "I think our viewers are intelligent enough to make their own decision as to whether their children should watch or not," complained executive producer John Wells. Hollywood is a favorite target in election years (in '92, Dan Quayle vs. Murphy Brown; in '96, Bob Dole vs. Ice-T; in 2000, Joseph Lieberman vs. Eminem). But some in the industry cheer the Super Bowl investigation. "I think everybody should be fined," said Vin di Bona, executive producer of America's Funniest Home Videos. "The networks, the artists, and if you really want to clean it up, fine the local broadcasters."

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