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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 February, 2004, 02:06 GMT
US apoplexy over Jackson flash

By Peter Bowes
BBC correspondent in Los Angeles

Two seconds of bare flesh and America is beside itself with indignation and outrage.

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake
Justin Timberlake has apologised
Janet Jackson's Super Bowl stunt, which she says went further than she planned, has left the US in a state of mass apoplexy on the subject of taste and decency in broadcasting.

A few moments after the now infamous "wardrobe malfunction" a grinning Justin Timberlake told the Access Hollywood TV show: "Hey man, we love giving you all something to talk about."

That is putting it mildly.

"I know many people in other countries are scratching their heads and thinking 'What in the world is the big fuss over there?'," said Robert Thompson, director of the Centre for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

That was the most disgusting thing that I have ever seen at a sports spectacle
Tommy Lasorda
Baseball coach
"But this country takes exposed breasts very, very seriously. We get very exercised about such things."

There is no denying the level of public fury. Within minutes of the Super Bowl half time performance, the internet was abuzz with angry chatter and phone lines to CBS's New York headquarters were jammed.

"That was the most disgusting thing that I have ever seen at a sports spectacle," said baseball coach Tommy Lasorda in Los Angeles.

"They just absolutely ruined the fact that it was one of the greatest Super Bowl games that I have ever seen."

Frozen attitudes

There was more naked flesh on show in the Super bowl adverts than in Ms Jackson's performance. Where is the outcry about that?
Timothy, UK

But on a scale of terrible things that happen in public, is a fleetingly bare breast so terrible?

Janet and Justin were not alone in exhibiting questionable taste during the Super Bowl.

The telecast also featured sexed-up commercials for beer, an advert starring a flatulent horse and others for erectile dysfunction drugs.

But, apparently, they do not compare with the impact of an exposed body part.

"Maybe when we left the old country we somehow froze certain attitudes," explained Mr Thompson.

"While other attitudes began to evolve elsewhere we held to many of them very carefully. There is this paradoxical part of the American character where we are simultaneously arguably the most obsessed about sex of anybody else in the entire planet and at the same time the most uptight about it."

Television's most TiVo replayed moment has provoked a level of debate that is unprecedented and there have been many calls for sweeping changes in the way broadcasters are regulated.

In spite of the controversy, how many guys are glad they bought that big screen
Jay Leno
US comedian
While the Jackson breast expose easily upstaged the entire Super Bowl event, the commercials, Iraq and the presidential election campaign, the underlying issue is nothing new for US broadcasters.


"There has been this dynamite in the culture wars, the idea of what is appropriate, what isn't appropriate on the public airwaves and it's been sitting around waiting to go off for a long time," said Mr Thompson.

"This two seconds of exposed breast seems to have really been the fuse that in fact is now going to start all of these much larger discussions than simply the breast or not," he added.

The half-time show at the Super Bowl in Houston

The next big challenge for American television will be the notoriously unpredictable broadcast of the Grammy awards on Sunday. Once again, CBS has the honour and headache of hosting the event.

US newspapers have reported that the network is under pressure to ensure that Jackson and Timberlake do not appear. She is scheduled to be a presenter while he is a nominee.

Not withstanding any possible changes in the law, American television is expected to introduce tougher policing of its live broadcasts.

Events such as award shows are likely to be transmitted on a five or 10-second delay. This would allow network censors to bleep or blur out potentially offensive material.

"People deciding whether to cut off one of the delayed broadcasts are going to err on the conservative side," said Mr Thompson.


As for next year's half-time show at the Super Bowl, it is highly unlikely the entertainment will be produced by MTV.

"Maybe a clown making balloon animals might be more in order," said Mr Thompson.

But would anyone watch?

Network television is a reasonably reliable indictor of the average American's tastes and comfort levels with popular culture.

Reality TV continues to dominate the schedules because people watch it in huge numbers.

During primetime viewing periods it is often difficult to avoid the antics of scantily-clad contestants on dating shows.

And the 180% spike in viewership, as recorded by TiVo users immediately after the Jackson moment, was hardly due to indignant and unimpressed viewers.

Indeed, since Sunday, America's late-night TV comedians have had a field day making light out of the embarrassing Super Bowl concert.

"In spite of the controversy, how many guys are glad they bought that big screen, high definition TV now, yeah!" joked Jay Leno.

Peter Bowes reports
"She knew what was coming, clearly"

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