It was the biggest boob-boo in TV history. Or so it seemed seven years ago, when Janet Jackson suffered a ”wardrobe malfunction” while performing with Justin Timberlake during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show. The allegedly accidental snafu exposed the pop diva’s breast to 90 million viewers. It lasted only a second, but it was enough to incite a protracted cultural moment, marked by justifiable concern and not-as-justifiable hysteria. The Federal Communications Commission — which received 540,000 complaints — fined CBS $550,000 and announced it would start issuing more severe penalties for indecency.
The media industry was spooked. Soap operas cut back on risqué plots, radio stations dropped fine magnet Howard Stern, and 65 ABC affiliates refused to air an unedited Saving Private Ryan. ”After ‘Nipplegate,’ there was a higher level of scrutiny by Standards and Practices,” says Carlton Cuse, an executive producer of Lost. ”It created a real sense of uncertainty about what constituted indecency. I remember sitting with [an ABC executive] going over a love scene frame by frame and debating how much of Kate’s lower breast we could see while Sawyer was lifting off her shirt.”
Nipplegate’s lasting fallout? TBD. CBS is still challenging the fine. In 2008, an appellate court voided the penalty. In 2009, the Supreme Court voided the void and asked the lower court to reconsider its earlier decision. TV is as edgy as ever (seen MTV’s racy Skins yet?), but the FCC seems less interested in policing T&A. According to attorney and free-speech advocate Ron Kuby, Jackson’s provocative peekaboob hasn’t had much lasting impact. ”Among those who take First Amendment issues seriously, Janet Jackson’s nipple is not discussed,” he says. ”Its long-term effects on the media industry are pretty much zero.”