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The Surprising After Effects Of A Notorious 'Wardrobe Malfunction'


Well, here's a halftime show we'll never forget.


CORNISH: Ten years ago, the Super Bowl halftime show featured 12 minutes of early-aughts pop, high-energy choreography and pyrotechnics. But what do we remember? Two words: Wardrobe malfunction.


CORNISH: Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson's breast on national television, launching parental outcry, lawsuits, an FCC investigation, congressional legislation and so much more. Marin Cogan looks back at how nine-sixteenth of a second on worldwide television changed everything and nothing at the same time. The article is in ESPN The Magazine. It's called "In the Beginning, There Was A Nipple." Marin, hey there.


CORNISH: So we sort of know what happened, but can you tell us what you learned about how it happened?

COGAN: Yeah. This is something that the NFL had contracted out to MTV. At the time, MTV was known for putting on these big, amazing performances. And they all swear to this day they had no idea that this wardrobe malfunction was going to happen, that...

CORNISH: The producers, you mean.

COGAN: Right. Everyone at NFL, CBS and MTV sort of swore up and down that they had no idea. That it was a decision that Janet and her choreographer-stylist made after the final rehearsal, and it did not go as they had planned.

CORNISH: No, not at all. So you actually spoke with then FCC chairman Michael Powell, who said his initial reaction was, quote, "My day is going to suck tomorrow." And of course, the FCC got more than half a million indecency complaints. Tell us what happened there. What happened in Washington?

COGAN: Yeah. Just to give you a sense of the scale of this thing, the previous year, the FCC had received something like 111 indecency complaints total. So over Janet...


COGAN: Total, right. So over Janet Jackson alone, they got half a million. And this was sort of in an era where we were having a national debate about the coarsening of our culture. The previous year, Bono had gone on stage at the Golden Globes and uttered a fleeting indecency. So there was already sort of this political moment brewing on Capitol Hill, and this just sort of hit a perfect storm and really blew up.

CORNISH: And Congress actually took action.

COGAN: Yeah, they did. They did. There were a number of pieces of legislation. Congress eventually chose to raise the fine significantly for indecency on the airwaves. But even before that, there were unanimous consent resolutions and people taking to the House and Senate floors to say the FCC really needs to crackdown on this stuff because it's not being taken seriously enough.

CORNISH: You know, in the end, after all of this outcry, did anyone have to pay a fine or really get in trouble legally?

COGAN: The FCC did go after CBS and CBS-owned stations for fines for fleeting indecency, and that continued to sort of work its way through the courts all the way till 2012, when the Supreme Court decided they were done with this issue, they weren't going to hear the case, and CBS never ended up paying a fine.

CORNISH: Now, interestingly, your article also poses the idea that this essentially birthed the idea for YouTube.

COGAN: Yeah. It wasn't the only event that precipitated YouTube, but one of the founders of YouTube was going online looking for a couple of clips. He was looking for Jon Stewart on "Crossfire," that sort of famous segment on "Crossfire" that he did. He was looking for the wardrobe malfunction. He was reading a lot about the rise of clip culture and this idea that we're not going to just be viewing television online anymore, that the Internet has changed the way we're going to want to view video clips.

And he started thinking there has to be a better way to go online and watch this stuff. A year later, he and two of his friends co-founded YouTube, and now we watch videos so much differently. We watch it on demand. We watch it on our phones. We watch it online. It's really not just a one-time-on-television thing anymore.

CORNISH: In the article, it seems like, you know, there's a little bit of a fatalistic view of the effort of some people who are trying to shelter their kids from very sexualized programming. I mean, at times people are kind of dismissive of it. Wasn't this kind of evidence that there was a bar, there was a threshold that culturally, society said, look, this is not the place for this?

COGAN: There was, and I think there still is. But what this event really highlighted for me, at least, 10 years later, is just how little the government is able to regulate what kinds of things your children see. There's really no way to filter out what they're able to see. And this was sort of the last big national debate we were having about whether or not we could police these kinds of things.

CORNISH: Well, Marin, thanks so much for going back into the history with us.

COGAN: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Marin Cogan, she writes about the scandal surrounding the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show for ESPN The Magazine. It's in an article titled "In the Beginning, There Was a Nipple."

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