Long after George Carlin was censored by the FCC, their next biggest fight in the public spotlight came in 2004. During the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson were the subject of of huge controversy, when Timberlake ripped off part of Jackson’s outfit. , exposing her bare chest to the estimated 90 million people watching live. The incident prompted numerous viewer complaints to the FCC and led Timberlake to coin the term wardrobe malfunction to refer to brief and accidental nudity.
For airing uncensored nudity, the FCC fined CBS $550,000. When CBS refused to pay, the case went to court. CBS argued that the FCC changed its policy in order to institute the fine, and moving the goalposts like this along with the high level of ambiguity in the wording of their guidelines rendered the fine unconstitutional. When the case reached the Supreme Court after eight years of legal back-and-forth, the court sided with CBS and threw out the FCC’s fine.
CBS finally won its lawsuit in 2012, but it took millions of dollars and several years to obtain this favorable result. Networks with fewer resources can’t afford to tangle with the FCC, even when trying to impose dubious fines. Before the lawsuit reached its conclusion, the Super Bowl scandal marked a turning point for the FCC. Going forward, they became much stricter and began issuing larger fines with increasing regularity.
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