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NBC News
updated 2/8/2004 6:33:15 PM ET 2004-02-08T23:33:15

It's been a week since Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake gave us that anatomy lesson at the the Super Bowl, and it's still a hot topic of debate. They've apologized -- in fact, everyone remotely involved has apologized for the breast-baring stunt -- but some people are still steaming. The question is, how did it happen? And with the media so full of provocative images these days, what made this one so different?

Has ever a breast, so briefly displayed, launched such an army of words into battle? And it’s real outrage. Of course it's also made for a week of wicked jokes. We could point out that it wasn't much of a flash compared with some things you see on cable TV every day, but that would miss the fact that this Janet Jackson incident was seen by 90 million people, all at the same moment, on broadcast TV. And that made it somehow important.

Meredith Amdur: “The molehill has turned into a mountain.”

Meredith Amdur, using that G-rated analogy, follows the media industry as New York Editor of Variety Magazine. Who knew, she says, that one moment would grow all week into a kind of epiphany for a lot of people, that bit by bit the changes on the tube have added up to something simply too tasteless.

Amdur: “I think what it did was force people to look at the rest of the show. And before you know it, there was a litany of complaints.  Why was Nelly dancing the way he did?  Why did Justin Timberlake walk up to Janet Jackson like he did? And hey, while we're talking about it, what about those ads? Can you believe what Viagra was doing? We've just suddenly saw it.”

Keith Morrison: “And began to focus?”

Amdur: “And began to focus on it.”

So, as TIVO machines generated more playbacks than a whole season of football, the FCC was logging  an avalanche of complaints, 200,000 of them, and had launched an investigation, which could end up costing

CBS stations millions of dollars in fines for violating indecency regulations.

FCC chairman Michael Powell: “Not only is it sort of a crass and sophomoric demonstration, it may be an illegal one.”

And by the time Janet had almost tearfully apologized, she had been dis-invited from the Grammies. And Justin Timberlake was telling the world that what he now famously called a “wardrobe malfunction” was completely, completely, completely regrettable. And the NFL was saying never again will MTV be invited back to produce the half time show.

CBS protested it had absolutely no idea such a thing would happen, and all those live awards shows were announcing tape delays long enough to sew a dress, let alone get out of one. And even dear old ER blurred out a mildly medical look at some distinctly unsexual 80-year old flesh.

All because of one little mistake. Or was it?

Toure: “If Janet didn't have an album coming this year, then there would be no need to have some over the top spectacle.”

Morrison: “People don't actually set out to do these things?”

Toure: “Oh, of course they do.”

Toure writes about the music industry for Rolling Stone magazine.

Toure: “It seems that in the pop star game, the level of the spectacle that you have to create to get the attention of you has been raised.”

Video: Under investigation Well, that worked. But why suddenly the outrage? Checked out a magazine stand lately? How much sex advice does one human need? The Internet flogs sex incessantly, have you seen HBO's Sex and the City? Titillation and graphic sexual innuendo are everywhere on MTV shows aimed at kids. And networks like ABC, NBC AND CBS? More and more, they're putting on racier programming to keep younger viewers from migrating off to cable and the Internet.

Amdur: “They want that 18 to 34 young male demographic. It's like the Holy Grail for advertisers for some reason. They've watched their audience share very slowly erode and tried to be a little racier.”

Morrison: “Gosh, it sounds like maybe everybody is trying to be just like Janet Jackson without getting caught.”

Amdur: ”That's right.  I think the trick is how far can you go?”

It’s in the TV business, in the music business. Clay Aiken, the all-American,  “American Idol” runner up and overnight sensation, saying even he's getting the message.

Clay Aiken: “There are people at the record label who think you have to stoop to a certain level to reach the MTV crowd.”

Aiken was the musical guest on last night's '”Saturday Night Live.” He promised to remain a standup, pants on sort of guy.

Aiken: “I think a lot of people do make changes because they think their fans are going away . If my fans turn out to be fans who want to see me pull my pants down and want to see me cussing, then they're not really fans.”

Toure: “The record industry is in peril right now. I mean they don't know what to do.”

Morrison: ”So there used to be money for everybody. Lots of money. And now you have to grab for it.  You've got to grasp for your little piece a lot harder.”

Toure: “Yeah. So it's not surprising then to see the big stars making bigger and bigger things. To say, look at me! Pay attention to me now. And then of course buy my record.”

Morrison: “In this case, did it backfire?”

Toure: “Well I think the prime record buying audience is going to be say 15 to 30. I don't think this group is going to be disgusted and run from Janet. The older group that's disgusted probably wouldn't have bought the records in either way.”

So, even in the face of those moral standards of ours getting up to squawk a little. The "incident", if it was intentional, may have had the effect desired. An aging singer got all the attention she could ever have wanted. While an old time TV network, using MTV in its hunt for young viewers, got more than it bargained for.

A little scandal for their trouble. And scandal, a sexy story, is, as we all know,  irresistible.

Amdur: “Why did we freak out? It was a great story. And Americans love great titillating stories.  We had to talk about it. The minute I saw it happen I thought, here we go. Here's your story for the week.”

We have had other such "stories of the week," of course. Some people actually remember when some of those moves from Elvis made a big scandal, too. Was Janet’s Super Bowl performance just the same? Well, maybe not.

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