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Madonna half time show: What's a network to do when performers behave badly?

Lots of finger-pointing has ensued after a rapper during the Madonna half time show at the Super Bowl made an obscene gesture – before millions of TV viewers. Indecency during prime time is an issue already before the US Supreme Court.

By Staff writer, Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / February 6, 2012

Madonna (c.) performs with Nicki Minaj (l.) and M.I.A. during the Madonna half time show at the Super Bowl on Sunday, in Indianapolis.

Michael Conroy/AP

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What began as a flap over a flash of a middle finger during the halftime show at Sunday’s Super Bowl has turned into a full-blown fracas over the future of the Federal Communications Commission, free-speech rights in an era of live events, and family-friendly programming in an age of nonregulated cable and Internet. 

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In the background is a flurry of finger-pointing on all sides.   

It kicked off after British rapper M.I.A., performing during the Madonna-centric halftime extravaganza, flashed an obscene gesture and, apparently, issued a muffled obscenity during the live performance – which NBC's five-second-delay provision did not stop from being broadcast to the 111 million-strong TV audience (the largest for any program ever, according to Nielsen Fast National Data). Within an hour of the final play on the field, NBC issued an apology. In a statement, the network noted that the “NFL hired the talent and produced the halftime show. Our system was late to obscure the inappropriate gesture.”

The NFL, in its own statement as reported on ESPN, noted a failure with NBC’s delay system and chastised the performer, saying, “the obscene gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate, very disappointing, and we apologize to our fans.”

The Parents Television Council, meanwhile, says both parties are to blame.

“They clearly knew who they were getting when they hired Madonna, no stranger to controversy,” says Melissa Henson, the council's director of communications. “If you compare that with more mature performers such as Paul McCartney, then they should have known there was a high likelihood of  something inappropriate happening.”   

The incident takes place against a backdrop of dissent over FCC rules that govern what type of programming can be broadcast from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., when children are presumed to be watching television. In 2004, the commission beefed up its policies on nudity and profanity on broadcast television (but it has no jurisdiction over content on cable or the Internet), fining and otherwise cracking down on networks that violate them. The appropriateness of FCC action is currently before the US Supreme Court, in one case with Fox Television and another with ABC Inc. 

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