Federal regulators Wednesday fined CBS a record $550,000 for Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction," which exposed the singer's breast during this year's Super Bowl halftime show.
The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to fine each of the 20 CBS-owned television stations $27,500, the maximum indecency penalty. The total penalty, $550,000, is the largest fine levied against a television broadcaster. Most of the FCC's bigger fines have been against radio stations.
"As countless families gathered around the television to watch one of our nation's most celebrated events, they were rudely greeted with a halftime show stunt more fitting of a burlesque show," FCC chairman Michael Powell said. "The show clearly intended to push the limits of prime time television."
The commission decided not to fine CBS's more than 200 affiliate stations (including the Tampa Bay area affiliate, WTSP-Ch. 10), which also aired the show but are not owned by the network's parent company, Viacom.
The two Democrats on the five-member commission said the fine should have been higher. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said the fine amounted to a "slap on the wrist" and suggested that the agency could have sent a stronger message about indecency by reprimanding CBS's affiliates as well.
MTV, a Viacom subsidiary, produced the Feb. 1 show, which featured Jackson and singer Justin Timberlake performing a racy duet. At the end, Timberlake ripped off a piece of Jackson's black leather top, exposing her right breast to a TV audience of about 90-million.
Timberlake blamed a "wardrobe malfunction," and CBS was quick to apologize. The incident generated a record number of complaints to the FCC, more than 500,000.
CBS said it was extremely disappointed with the decision.
"While we regret that the incident occurred and have apologized to our viewers, we continue to believe that nothing in the Super Bowl broadcast violated indecency laws," the network said in a statement. "Furthermore, our investigation proved that no one in our company had any advance knowledge about the incident."
Viacom has said it will fight any fines leveled against its stations for the performance. Over the summer, Viacom co-president Leslie Moonves said a fine would be "grossly unfair" and promised a court challenge.
Federal law bars radio and noncable television stations from airing references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children may be tuning in. Once a complaint is made to the FCC, the agency determines whether the broadcast was indecent.
The FCC launched a crackdown on indecency soon after the Super Bowl, resulting in several high-profile fines. Among them: a $755,000 fine against Clear Channel for graphic drug and sex talk on the now defunct Tampa-based Bubba the Love Sponge radio program and a record $1.75-million fine, also against Clear Channel, for indecency complaints against Howard Stern and other radio personalities.