During the NFL playoff game at the New Orleans Superdome, Fox's camera zoomed in on a cheering blond woman in the crowd. She had black patches under her eyes (the kind football players wear for the glare) and sported a black T-shirt with "F--- Da Eagles" printed on it in gold. The Parents Television Council, a decency watchdog group founded by conservative commentator Brent Bozell, wasn't amused, particularly by the fact that the network lingered on the fan for several seconds before cutting away. It has been mobilizing its members to file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission, which so far has received 8,000 alone via the council's web site. The group has also demanded that Fox and its affiliates refund advertisers the money they paid to air commercials during the game. (No money has been refunded and no advertisers have asked for it, say network officials.)
Bloggers had the offensive image sailing through the Internet by halftime. Immediately after the game, embarrassed Fox execs began apologizing profusely. The shot was "inadvertent and unintentional," insists Fox spokeswoman Ileana Pena. In the fast pacing of live TV, the image slipped through without anyone noticing what was printed on the shirt, the network claims.
The council isn't buying that defense. "There is no doubt that this was an intentional airing of patently offensive language on the public airwaves," says a fuming Tim Winter, president of the council and a former executive at NBC for 15 years. Fox's broadcast crew, he added, picked the racy T-shirt "from more than 70,000 spectators in the stadium." With so many eyes fixated on what's being beamed out of the stadium from the cameraman taking the shot to the directors and technicians in the production truck watching the monitors "how can you possibly take this apology seriously?"
If the networks are actually held responsible for any obscene behavior in the stands, it could cost them. Janet Jackson's notorious "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show cost CBS and its affiliates $550,000 in fines. The network will have a five-second delay for this year's halftime show, which the NFL is also reviewing ahead of time more carefully.
CBS won't have any delay for the game itself, which will be broadcast live. But the network's cameramen and directors working the Super Bowl have been briefed to be careful about crowd shots to make sure they don't repeat Fox's mistake, say CBS execs. "We talk to our production teams throughout the season about what we think is appropriate," says Tony Petitti, executive vice president and executive producer for CBS Sports. For all games, the NFL also instructs security personnel and ticket-takers at entrances to prevent fans from coming into stadiums with obscene signs or clothing, says spokesman Brian McCarthy. They'll be doing the same on Sunday, but McCarthy cautions that an offensive T-shirt is difficult for a gatekeeper to spot if the fan walks through with other clothing covering it.
Because the case is now before the FCC, Fox won't comment on steps the network is taking to make sure a dirty crowd shot snafu doesn't happen again. In any event, the FCC isn't likely to do anything until a federal appeals court rules on the FCC's new indecency enforcement policy, fueled in part by Jackson's breast-baring show. That policy, which would impose fines for certain types of graphic profanity, is being challenged by the major networks, including Fox. More crowd shots like the one during the Eagles-Saints game probably won't help their case.