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Friday, February 06, 2004

Reverberations From A Rack

Variety writes at length today about the continuing aftershocks in the entertainment industry from the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake breast-baring incident:

The rehabilitation of Jackson has begun in earnest, and taking the lead is MTV sister network BET.

The vehicle: a series of 10 30-second vignettes featuring a subdued, furrowed-brow Jackson, dressed almost dowdily in conservative black, speaking directly to cable viewers about dignified African-American personages ranging from Sidney Poitier and Harriet Tubman to Marion Anderson and Paul Robeson.

Forget about what BET calls Jackson's "edgy and sexy persona," which exploded during the halftime of last week's Super Bowl game when Justin Timberlake ripped her costume, baring her right breast live before an estimated audience of 90 million people. In the BET spots, Jackson comes off like the mother superior of a nunnery. "Her tone is serious and focused," says a BET statement, and she takes on the "air and diction of a seasoned lecturer."

In addition, Jackson has withdrawn as a performer at the Grammys and organizers are debating whether to require Timberlake to do the same. TNT is insert a 10-second audio delay on the SAG Awards. MTV, which produced the halftime show that offended so many people, was barred from filming a series on a California high-school campus that had previously been approved. Finally, Congress is considering a bill that would increase the fines for indecency tenfold, a bill that the broadcast industry would like to fight but now is in a difficult position in which to do so.

It's amazing how much damage a nipple medallion can cause.

However, this is not a trivial matter, as I tried to explain to a (skeptical) friend the other day. Public broadcasting is just that -- a public issue, as radio frequencies are monopolies. Only one broadcaster can use a particular channel in each market, and so government has licensed broadcasters since 1933 in order to maintain order and to ensure that broadcasters meet the public trust in their programming. Since CBS, for instance, broadcasts on channel 4 in my area using a high-powered transmitter, I cannot make use of this frequency to publish my own point of view. This makes the Super Bowl broadcast very much different than having the Sopranos on HBO. HBO does not monopolize a certain broadcast frequency in order to play its programming; neither does MTV, the Comedy Channel, or any of the other cable networks. Cable bandwidth is owned by the cable delivery service; broadcast channels are owned by the public.

This grant of local monopolies conveys a greater responsibility on the broadcaster to ensure that their programming does not violate community standards of decency. Without a doubt, baring an adult female breast in public is an indecent act, and in most if not all of America it would be considered a misdemeanor for indecent exposure. One does not need to find the bare mammary gland repugnant or shameful in order to understand the difference between broadcasting this on CBS on a Sunday evening during the most-watched TV show of the year and displaying it on the Playboy Channel. The latter service provides subscriptions to viewers who have an interest in that kind of programming and doesn't monopolize public broadcast channels to deliver it.

Nor, as my friend attempted to argue, is the Jackson/Timberlake episode analogous to scenes from National Geographic programs which have showed bare-chested women in tribal areas, living within their own community standards. The context of the Super Bowl halftime show was obviously sexual in nature. The songs being performed contained many references to sex, and the performers gestured in obviously sexual ways. Nelly, for instance, grasped his crotch a number of times, as CBS helpfully zoomed in on the action. Dancers were costumed in bondage-fantasy outfits. Jackson herself wore what looked like a leather butcher's smock/bustier. The effect of Timberlake's gesture was one of power and humiliation, two common themes in bondage-genre entertainment. The wonder isn't that many Americans were offended by such a display, the wonder is that women's groups didn't make more of a protest on Monday morning.

As the owner of the channels that CBS uses to its own profit, the public is entitled to demand a higher standard from the broadcasters and producers of the programming aired. Let's not keep discussing the supposed "Puritanism" of Americans as the problem; instead, keep in mind that the production CBS aired was not appropriate, not for the time, the audience, and the medium.

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01:35 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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"the wonder is that women's groups didn't make more of a protest on Monday morning."

Yeah, they've been MIA as usual. I guess there's no Republicans involved who can be trashed.

I'm normally not an agitator on equal treatment, but in this case, why *shouldn't* Justin Timberlake be banned from the Grammy's as well -- or even before Janet Jackson? It seems to have been a stunt dreamed up between the two of them, but it was *his* invasive action...it's not like she ripped off her own bustier.

Posted by: Judith at Feb 7, 2004 6:02:23 AM