When Justin Timberlake ripped Janet Jackson's bodice during the final moments of the Super Bowl halftime show, most viewers experienced a delayed reaction. "Did you see what I think I just saw?" could be heard in living rooms across the country.
CBS's reaction has been to apologize - and order a tape delay of up to five minutes during its next live broadcast: Sunday's Grammy Awards. The move, coupled with stern warnings to musicians to be on their best behavior at the awards show, is an effort to regain some control over artists who routinely use shock as a marketing tool. Few observers could miss the fact that Jackson launched a new single this week.
But the mea culpas by everyone from CBS and MTV to Jackson for what Timberlake initially tried to pass off as a "wardrobe malfunction" won't halt the growing trend of "stunt TV." Far from being an aberration, media watchers say, last Sunday's shenanigans are part of desperation tactics by networks who are waging a losing war for the big audiences they used to command.
Whether it's Britney and Madonna kissing or Bono uttering unexpected epithets, network viewers should expect more risqué "surprises" during live broadcasts. And, these experts say, the responses from the FCC and network will do little to stop the trend in this direction - despite the deluge of calls CBS received from a disgusted public.
"There will be lots of public clamor," says Roger Desmond, director of the school of communications at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. And ultimately, nothing will change. "The networks will continue to do more of what they know works, which is big stunts," he says, particularly when they can be "positioned" as an unplanned surprise to everyone.
CBS, for its part, maintains that it knew nothing about the stunt. "Everyone at CBS is shocked," says Gil Schwartz, vice president of communications. Even so, the network will allow Timberlake and Jackson to perform at the Grammys.
FCC chair Michael Powell has promised an immediate investigation, but some media watchers say that organization should share in the blame.
"This is just another blip as we slide down the trajectory to the bottom of our culture," says Rich Hanley, director of the Graduate School of Communications at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. "This trend is going to do nothing but accelerate," he says, in large part due to existing FCC policies. "The interesting point with Michael Powell protesting is that this is the spawn of his doing."
Professor Hanley says that FCC policies have encouraged the consolidation of a handful of huge media companies all struggling to survive in an increasingly cutthroat business environment.
The notion that the networks should operate in the public interest is a quaint relic of another time, he says. When the corporate structure is focused on ratings and profits, stunts like the one on Sunday will become the norm. "The companies say to themselves, 'We need eyeballs,' Hanley says, "and increasingly, the mechanism for eyeballs is porn or shock or awe."
Other experts agree, but stress that it's a particular type of eyeballs the network is most anxious to attract. "CBS, like all the networks, is desperately trying to keep its base of 18- to 34-year-old male viewers," says Rod Carveth, associate professor of advertising at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. "That group, which is the most desirable, is going in droves to cable and pay TV, where there are fewer boundaries all the time," he says. It makes sense that the network wanted its hipper sister company (MTV and CBS are owned by parent company,Viacom) to perform at half time. "It's no accident that the performers were people like Kid Rock and Justin Timberlake, who would appeal to that group of viewers," he adds.
Congress is attempting to upgrade the current FCC slap on the wrist to more of a punch in the pocketbook. Michigan Congressman Fred Upton, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, has backed a bill calling for the FCC to levy 10 times the current fine of $27,500 per station for an offense. The Republican's office released a statement condemning Sunday's excesses, saying "I am appalled with last night's shameless stunt during the Super Bowl."
Some activists hope to use the momentum of the moment to highlight the need for change. "Television is a monopoly that is tightly controlled in the hands of a few," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an African-American activist here who organized a community meeting on Tuesday to discuss Sunday's events.
"The FCC won't do anything, Janet Jackson won't do anything. The investigation won't go anywhere because you're asking the people in power to change policies that make money for them," says the political organizer, who says his goal is to open up the airwaves to a broader range of voices. He dubs the protests from the networks and the NFL "a political sideshow, nothing but an appeasement for the vast, silent majority who are making this outcry."
Despite official apologies, some viewers are still outraged about Sunday's incident. "I don't care what any of them say," says Los Angeles pianist Dennis Napolitano, who says he's thankful his 11-year-old daughter wasn't watching the big game with him. "They're all just trying to outdo each other. I think the whole thing was just staged for ratings."
• Elizabeth Armstrong in Boston contributed to this report.