Super Bowl halftime performance takes shock to a new level

Tuesday, February 3, 2004

NEW YORK -- Suddenly, Britney and Madonna's smoochfest seems G-rated.

Janet Jackson's revealing performance with Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl halftime show has sparked a federal investigation and set new standards for raunch in an entertainment industry that seems to be setting new highs -- or lows -- every day.

Gone are the days when a powerful performance is all that was needed to deliver a watercooler moment. Nowadays, a barely there outfit, same-sex smooching or foul language -- and now, a flash of nudity -- are what's required to get America talking.

More outrageous

"Every time an artist does something you think they sort of break the barrier, and it keeps getting more and more outrageous," said Tom Poleman, senior vice president of programming at New York City radio station Z100. "I think artists will keep on exploiting every opportunity they can get."

When Timberlake snatched off part of Jackson's bustier, revealing a breast clad only in a sun-shaped "nipple shield," the barrier was not broken -- it was shattered before 89 million viewers.

Cape Girardreau's local CBS affiliate, KFVS-12, received between 20 and 50 complaints, said general manager Mike Smythe.

"We've had numerous telephone calls and many, many e-mails," he said. "Actually, we didn't like it either. We're talking about family viewing hour."

Federal Communications Commission chief Michael Powell said in a statement, "Like millions of Americans, my family and I gathered around the television for a celebration. Instead, that celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt." He promised an investigation, with potential fines of up to $27,500 or -- if applied to each CBS station -- in the millions.

Over-the-air TV channels cannot air "obscene" material at any time and cannot air "indecent" material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The FCC defines obscene as describing sexual conduct "in a patently offensive way" and lacking "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." Indecent material is not as offensive but still contains references to sex or excretions.

The FCC has come under fire from lawmakers and outside groups who say the agency hasn't done enough to shield the public from indecent programming. The Bush administration has endorsed a bill raising the $27,500 maximum fine to $275,000.

Last month, the FCC proposed a $755,000 fine against Clear Channel Communications for a program that aired multiple times on four Florida radio stations -- a record for a single complaint. The largest cumulative indecency fine was $1.7 million paid by Infinity Broadcasting in 1995 for various violations by Howard Stern.

Over at Z100, whose audience tends to range from 12 to 34 years old, the radio station was playing Jackson's new single every two hours on Monday.

"All of our listeners, they saw right through it," Poleman said. "Nobody is buying for a second that it wasn't a setup, but at the same time, they're cool with it."

So were stores that sell nipple jewelry. In Greenwich Village, Cassioppia Tattoo and Piercing's owner Bianca Bubenik placed a newspaper photo of the singer and her exposed breast in a display case alongside nipple decorations similar to the one Jackson wore.

"She's coming out with a new CD soon," Bubenik said. "We were just discussing it this morning -- it's a publicity stunt."

And it has people talking at just the right time about Jackson -- until the next celebrity shocker.

Already this year, we've seen Britney married, Michael Jackson dancing at his child molestation arraignment and Steve Irwin frolicking with his newborn and a crocodile -- and it's only February.

"Who knows?" said Poleman. "It's up to their imagination."

AP writers David Bauder, Christy Lemire and Jonathan D. Salant contributed to this report.

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