Though it has only been two years since it made its live debut on national television, Janet Jackson’s right nipple has already left an indelible mark on American society. Many thought that The Nipple’s legacy would be limited to introducing the expression "wardrobe malfunction" to the English language, as well as the astonishing revelation that there exists a fashion accessory known as a "nipple shield." Thankfully, both inventions have failed to catch-on. Nonetheless, The Nipple’s impact on culture and politics has been profound and deep.
First, ABC broadcast the entire Super Bowl tonight (pre-game, game, half-time show and post-game wrap-up) on a five-second tape delay. I’m not much of a football fan, but the idea seems to me a violation of the democratic ethos of sports and mass spectatorship. Now, the privileged few who are able to cough up the lowest ticket price of $600 will be living history, whereas the masses huddled over nachos in their living rooms will be merely watching history.
Second, in a nod to critics, Super Bowl planners booked the Rolling Stones for this year’s half-time show. I am a huge Stones fan, and the apparent fact that Mick and Keith now constitute clean, family-fare is hugely disappointing.
Third, Nipplegate was exactly what social conservatives needed to ramp up the culture war on indecency. In its wake the Parents Television Council launched a campaign encouraging its constituents to flood the FCC with indecency complaints. The result: broadcasters were charged a record $7.9 million in fines in 2004 including $550,000 paid by CBS for Ms. Jackson’s "nasty" exposure — a mere flesh wound to corporate media, but perhaps a harbinger of things to come. The Christian Coalition vociferously lobbied Congress to pass legislation dramatically increasing indecency fines; the bill passed the House but has stalled in the Senate. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, head of the Commerce Committee, floated the idea of extending FCC jurisdiction to cable broadcasters. If he succeeds, you can kiss programs like "The Sopranos," "Sex in the City," "South Park" and "The Daily Show" goodbye. Finally, not content to harass the FCC from the outside, last year conservatives placed former Concerned Women of America board member and anti-porn activist Penny Nance in the FCC’s Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis as a special adviser.
Last week Bush nominated telecommunications lawyer and lobbyist Robert McDowell to the FCC. If confirmed by the Senate, McDowell would restore the 3-2 Republican majority and re-ignite attempts to gut media ownership regulations. It doesn’t appear that Bush was thinking of Janet Jackson’s right nipple and the family-values crowd when he made this choice, but if the Senate takes the confirmation hearings seriously, McDowell should have to answer tough questions on both censorship and media consolidation.