(Janet and Justin. Photo by David Phillip, Associated Press)
Super Bowl XXXVIII was one of the best editions of the Sunday classic I had ever seen. It had high scoring, two dueling quarterbacks, clutch fourth quarter plays, and a game-winning field goal from Adam Vinatieri. The Patriots beat the Panthers 32-29 in what was at the time the most watched Super Bowl in history.
And yet when I turned on the cable news shows the next morning, no one in the media cared the slightest bit about the football game. All anyone was talking about was the Super Bowl halftime show, and by extension Janet Jackson's breast.
During the MTV-produced halftime show, Michael Jackson's little sister was performing on stage with Justin Timberlake. In a written statement to the media a day later, Jackson said the idea (unbeknown to MTV) was for Timberlake "to pull away the bustier and leave the red-lace bra." However, in what both Justin and Janet termed as a "wardrobe malfunction," Timberlake grabbed a little more than he should have. Following these words from his song Rock Your Body -- "I'm gonna have you naked by the end of this song" -- Timberlake tore away both layers over Janet's right breast. For less than a second, 90 million Americans had their eyes registered on Jackson's nipple-plated bosom before CBS cameras pulled away.
However, the United States was an odd nation, one that reveled in making enormous scandals out of less-than-worthy issues. The American public freaked out over the wardrobe malfunction. The FCC received over half a million complaints and fined the twenty CBS affiliates who televised the game a collective $550,000. CBS, MTV, Viacom, Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson, and the NFL were coaxed into numerous apologies. The news media salivated over the controversy and spent the entire week condemning the display. While the need to express outrage over a cheap, PR gimmick was understandable, the news channels did so by replaying the clip of the malfunction over, and over, and over again.
As it turned out, not only did a huge chunk of the country enjoy the brief nudity, many people found that the clip wasn't long enough. Searches for Jackson's exposed, un-pixelated breast became the most searched-for image ever on the web after only three days. Meanwhile, Tivo announced record use of its playback functionality -- not for the game, but for the Super Bowl halftime show.
The following year, supervisions were put in place to make Super Bowl XXXIX more wholesome than its predecessor. MTV was banned from conducting further halftime shows. The network had touted "shocking moments" before the last one, which of course undermined their statement that the nipple-flash was an accident. The Best Damn Sports Show Period, which was doing the never-ending pregame show for FOX, had their program retitled "The Best Darn Super Bowl Road Show Period." The halftime show was performed by Paul McCartney, who was considered a safe choice by TV executives (i.e. he wasn't a woman).
At the end of the day, possibly the best Super Bowl ever was completely ignored in favor of the worst halftime show ever, one where Kid Rock wore the American flag as a poncho, Janet Jackson lip-synced a couple songs and then had her breast revealed. Five- and ten-second delays became commonplace for sporting events and live programming, several racy radio programs were pulled under FCC crackdowns, and TV purists were touting the death of clean programming as they knew it. And the amazing thing was that it all came from a 0.6-second nipple-flash. It was just a nipple -- everyone has them, everyone sees them every day.