Editor’s Note: A version of this article was published by National Review Online. Click here to read it.
This year’s Super Bowl set a record as perhaps the most watched show in the history of television, with an estimated 114 million viewers. We know on a normal year that over 17 million children watch the Super Bowl, but this year it was probably much higher. It’s now an American tradition for youth groups, church members, and families to gather together to watch the nation’s premier sporting event of the year.
So when, despite the calm assurances of the NFL and NBC, parents are treated to a halftime show in which British-born M.I.A. swears and flips off cameras while performing alongside pop music icon Madonna, people get angry.
First off, who is M.I.A., and why do we care? Although it’s clear that class isn’t her strong suit, it should trouble us that she has little self-respect and chooses ignorant and exploitive behavior for the sake of name recognition. Lady Gaga aside, most performers don’t get kudos for insulting their audiences. Perhaps M.I.A needs to stand for “Missing in America.”
Secondly, the NFL is responsible for producing the halftime show and, although musical tastes vary, why push the envelope? There are countless performers in all musical genres who can be trusted to treat the public with respect. Officials are trying to say they were completely blindsided by M.I.A.’s obscene gesture, stating she did not do anything similar during rehearsals with Madonna, and, therefore, there was no reason to believe she would perform differently during the live show. Really though, all the NFL had to do was listen to the lyrics of M.I.A.’s new song, not surprisingly titled “Bad Girl,” which instructs listeners to “live fast, die young,” or “Paper Planes” where M.I.A. says that “some I murder, some I let go,” and they would have known instantly that she wasn’t the best choice of entertainment for 17 million children.
Thirdly, NBC broadcasters should have been alert and quicker on the uptake, not to mention the 30-second delay (which, by the way, is old technology and not rocket science). But just wait, somehow American parents are going to get blamed for this. How dare we allow our children to watch the Super Bowl with the expectation of family entertainment? Well, according to both the V-chip and other blocking mechanisms that the networks point to as their excuse to be vulgar during prime time, it was a family-rated show. NBC and the NFL know this, yet they don’t seem to care.
And finally, the FCC: As a former Special Advisor for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on family issues, I know complaints are rolling into the FCC’s office right now, mostly via FCC.gov. Feel free to file your own complaint. The FCC is not monitoring TV, but when alerted by the public, it is legally bound to look into the issue. However, under President Obama, this FCC has done little to nothing to curb the rise in indecency concerns or adjudicate the complaints from the public that are a logical result. Chairman Genachowski has, on several occasions, given speeches about the importance of protecting kids, and yet he’s, shall we say, M.I.A. on the issue of broadcast indecency. Frankly, those standards are actually pretty lenient. Indecency regulations are only applicable from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on broadcast (over the air) television. The standard, according to 18 USC 1464, says the program has to contain “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.”
The last time the Super Bowl had a dust-up on this issue was Janet Jackson’s strip show, and the public is still waiting on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision on the lawsuit that resulted from the very modest fine of $550,000 levied by the FCC under George W. Bush. Speaking of the courts, one can only hope that the Supreme Court Justices are sports fans. Super Bowl night is a great argument for why these regulations exist. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a ruling for FCC v. Fox, which was triggered by numerous “vulgar expletives” uttered by Cher and Nicole Richie during the 2011 Billboard Music Awards and also by scripted nudity on an episode of NYPD Blue.
In 1961, then FCC Chairman Newton Minow famously called television “the vast wasteland.” I wonder what he would call it now. After the Super Bowl halftime show, many parents now call it “infuriating.”