Nipplegate: The Boob That Changed The Halftime Show

The Controversy That Castrated The Super Bowl Half Time Show

The Super Bowl. The biggest, most widely viewed sporting event in the world. The amount of energy, sweat, sacrifice and passion that goes into the biggest games of the NFL season is absolutely mind-boggling – and that’s just the organizers of the always-hyped halftime show.

Since the early 1990s, the Super Bowl halftime shows have headlined major stars, thus increasing the number of television viewers during the mid-game break, and making advertisers happier and wealthier. In the United States alone, over 100 million viewers stay glued to their seats to enjoy the performance every year.

In addition to the light show, fireworks, sound system, dancers, backing musicians and video feed, organizers must also ensure that every performance meets acceptable standards for general audiences of all ages and sensitivities.

In 2004, singer Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl 38 halftime show proved to be a “game changer” in the preparation and broadcast of halftime shows, and live television performances anywhere.

Justin Timberlake joined Jackson for the final song of her set, “Rock Your Body.” At the end of the number, Timberlake reached to remove part of Jackson’s costume, ostensibly intending to reveal a red lace bra. Unfortunately, he removed the bra as well, and Jackson’s nearly bare right breast – covered only by a nipple shield, was exposed to over 143 million viewers worldwide for just under one second.

That the incident was even an issue, let alone related to as a “scandal” has long been a source of confusion for many. The briefest, and possibly unintentional flash of breast was more of a concern to Federal Communications Commission authorities than the overtly sexual dance that Timberlake and Jackson performed while singing the song, and more problematic than some of the song’s lyrics, such as “Go ahead, girl, just do that ass shaking thing you do,” and “I gotta have you naked by the end of this song.” Even more puzzling was that Jackson was widely ostracized, had her music blacklisted by many, and was forced to apologize for the incident. Timberlake on the other hand, suffered no such backlash at all.

Just how serious was the backlash? Just the fact that it was labeled “Nipplegate,” (also known as “Boobgate”) provides a good indication. The ‘gate’ suffix has been associated with major scandals since the Watergate scandal in 1972 led to the only resignation of an American president in US history.

The incident was serious enough that the NFL announced after the incident that show producer MTV would never again produce a halftime show for the league. Also, a five-second delay of live television broadcasts was initiated, so that producers could “catch” such offensive displays before the world saw them. (Ironically, the delay did not help producers catch rap singer M.I.A. flipping her middle finger during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2012. While many compared that incident to Nipplegate, the backlash and financial penalties did not compare to what Janet Jackson suffered eight years earlier).

The FCC also took immediate and decisive action, fining CBS television a whopping $550,000 for the incident. (CBS fought the fine all the way to the Supreme Court, and it was eventually voided in 2011 by a federal appellate court). The FCC also announced that every incident of public indecency on television would result in a fine of $325,000, more than 10 times the previous fines of $27,500.

The backlash for Nipplegate was also felt in daytime television. Until that point, some soap operas (in particular “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light”) occasionally showed male buttocks during sex scenes. However, with the FCC crackdown (no pun intended) on “public indecency,” this practice stopped.

The NFL Pro Bowl and the NBA All-Star game were played shortly after the Super Bowl, and both were carried by cable television networks that are not under the jurisdiction of the FCC. Nevertheless, the backlash of Nipplegate reached both of these games as well. At the Pro Bowl, played in Hawaii one week after the Super Bowl, the NFL cancelled the halftime performance by JC Chasez, for fear that his song “Blowin’ Me Up (with Her Love)” would offend viewers and reflect even more poorly in the NFL after the Nipplegate controversy. He was replaced at halftime by traditional Hawaiian dancers.

The following week at the NBA All-Star game, singer Beyonce Knowles, who had planned to sing her hit “Naughty Girl,” was instructed instead to perform “Crazy in Love” for its less sexually suggestive lyrics.

Live broadcasts later that month of the Grammy Awards and the Academy Awards also included enhanced broadcast delays, as producers made absolute certain that no violations of American sensitivities would take place on their watch. Lingerie manufacturer “Victoria’s Secret” even cancelled their annual fashion show that year.

For several years after Nipplegate, the NFL only brought in older, “classic rock” acts for Super Bowl halftime shows – trusting that singers such as Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Who, The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen would be less likely to offend cultural sensitivities than the younger generation of singers.

The situation got so severe that popular radio stations across America began dropping songs from their playlists that included either profanity or sexually suggestive lyrics.

With the abundance of war, violence, starvation and random acts of hatred that we see daily on newscasts and even prime time television, one cannot help but to wonder what positive impact the FCC might have made on the world if they had been as concerned with any of that as they were with a half-second of woman’s breast.


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