The surprise guest appearance of Janet Jackson's right breast at the Super Bowl lasted a few seconds. But close inspection of the freeze-frame of that moment reveals a deep fissure in what's left of "mainstream" America.
The wardrobe malfunction was the unexpected tipping point in a debate that's rolled across media and generated a violent intensity. And it's left marketers to grapple with where to spend billions of dollars to reach target audiences, and the appropriate images and messages to use to sway consumers.
When MTV's theatrics played on the mainstream stage, the schism between traditionalists and nonconformists had its defining moment.
Viewers, listeners and readers who enjoy the kind of content the Federal Communications Commission might dub indecent aren't likely to change their minds about what's fit for public airwaves. They'll just be bored. If mainstream media opts to placate a moral majority, then younger and/or more sophisticated consumers will make their own choices--for cable, satellite radio, the Internet, pay-per-view.
"That's absolutely a real threat. You'll lose the majority of that audience," said Michael Silverstein, a senior VP at the Boston Consulting Group and the co-author of "Trading Up." Referring to the 40 million households he sees as hungry for "New Luxury" brands, he says "half of them do not have children; they are educated, sophisticated and worldly, and they are quite immune to titillation. And they seek entertainment products that match their standards." Deciding those standards for them "will cause greater audience erosion. There's no question about that."
If those consumers flee the mainstream, the advertisers that covet them need to follow. This year's upfront marketplace could be an early test, with potentially hundreds of millions of ad dollars set to move from broadcast to cable.
And if media vehicles and audiences continue to fragment according to where they fall on the good taste divide, advertisers seeking to reach both camps may have to fragment along with them. The rise of parallel campaigns, one rated "G," a second flirting with "R" becomes increasingly likely if a large segment of consumers reject the shock tactics that another segment can't live without.
"We can target the media for the audience, but the advertisers are not making enough commercials to take advantage of what we are doing," said Jon Mandel, co-CEO of Grey Global Group's MediaCom Worldwide. "This may be a case where with more conservative programs you run a more conservative commercial, and with more sophisticated programming you make more sophisticated commercials. Right now, they run the same commercials on the Weather Channel, MTV and E! and that isn't the best use of their time."
A series of events both predating the Super Bowl and rising in its wake underscores a new set of assumptions by the government and big media--that mainstream audiences must be protected from the sort of edgy ideas and titillation that one of the more lucrative segments of consumers thrives on (or at least takes for granted).
Advertisers, retailers and brand managers face a new set of choices. Do they shun mainstream media in the hunt for edgy, elite consumers? Do they refine their approach to speak to the highest moral caliber, rather than the lowest common denominator? Or pursue both goals simultaneously?
They may not even have a choice. Radio giant Clear Channel is purging itself of shock jocks, including Howard Stern, even if the cost is ratings and ad revenue. Wal-Mart banned some magazines and partially obscured others after complaints last year, while Time Inc. just announced a new women's magazine that will initially only be sold through the retailer--the result of intense discussions about what Wal-Mart customers want and find appropriate.
The FCC and its chairman, Michael Powell, have stepped up a campaign to fine indecency off the airwaves. Legislation to expand the scope of "indecency" and increase the corresponding fines began weaving its way through Congress before last Christmas.
Viacom's mistake, in retrospect, was to mix MTV's aesthetic with a CBS audience swollen with millions of viewers expecting nothing but a football game and some interesting commercials. It proved to be a combustible recipe.
"You spend the better part of the 20th century building up the largest single audience in the history of the world. Rich and poor, young and old, male and female, everyone was feeding from the same cultural trough of radio and then television," said Robert Thompson, professor of TV at Syracuse University. "Viacom took this MTV aesthetic and put that into the mainstream mass audience. That's what caused this whole thing. It played on broadcast television, right in the middle of the last remaining jewel in the crown of the network TV era."
An embarrassment colossal in scale, it instantly spurred political pressure on broadcasters to clean up their act. But media backlash was lying in wait before the Super Bowl incident. Six weeks before the Super Bowl, Rep. Doug Ose, R-Calif., had already introduced the Clean Airwaves Act, which would ban the "seven words" from broadcast, a political slap at what some had seen as the FCC's lax stance on decency. In October, the FCC refused to take action against Bono, lead singer of U2, who used the phrase "fucking brilliant" at the Golden Globe Awards telecast 10 months earlier.
The same week that the Clean Airwaves Act hit Congress, Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian political group, expressed outrage over the Billboard Music Awards on Dec. 10, in which Nicole Ritchie used the same expletive plus the words "cow shit" on the East Coast live feed.
"This latest assault on American families is just another indication that the FCC does not take its job seriously," said the group. "Each year, TV broadcasters grow bolder, but the FCC acts as if nothing is happening. The Enforcement Bureau has become like Nero, playing his fiddle as Rome burns."
The timing of this outrage-- especially after the Jackson scandal sent broadcasters running for cover--struck many observers as a bit too convenient considering the political backdrop of an already-heated presidential election year. Shock jock Howard Stern, whose radio program was fined by the FCC and dropped by six stations owned by Clear Channel after a Feb. 24 broadcast, has since pilloried the White House on a daily basis for what he perceives as a not-so-subtle attempt at censorship.
Prior targets of decency campaigns see a familiar pattern. "We've got a conservative Supreme Court, a conservative president, a conservative Congress, and it's an election year," said Larry Flynt, author of the upcoming book, "Sex Lies and Politics: The Naked Truth," and founder of Hustler, who for 30 years has contested numerous accusations of obscenity. "They can't keep our streets clean, but they want to keep our minds clean. To satisfy their religious-right base, they've been putting a lot of pressure to get this decency thing on track again."
That viewpoint, however, conveniently ignores the bipartisan support the move to cleanse the airwaves has enjoyed, making it that much scarier to some. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, has been as outspoken on the issue as Chairman Powell. And on March 13, the House of Representatives voted 391-22 to boost the maximum fine for indecency to $500,000 from $27,500. In addition to increasing fines, the House has a "three strikes and you're out" provision to yank the broadcast license of repeat offenders. The Senate is considering similar legislation that will increase the maximum fine of $3 million.
The issue of indecency is a cyclical one that tends to evaporate as quickly as it appears. Witness one of the first cases from 1961, when Newton Minow, former FCC chairman, delivered his famous "vast wasteland" speech decrying TV violence to the National Association of Broadcasters. "When television is good," he said, "nothing--not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers--is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse."
In reaction, broadcasters began airing more documentaries, but with Kennedy's assassination and the rise of Vietnam, by 1968, any traction the decency issue had was swept away in the rise of the hippie youth movement.
Because of the cyclical nature of popular outrage, few expect this scandal to have a permanent impact. "The question is, does it go away after the elections, or does it go away in two years, or does it never go away?" asked Mr. Mandel of MediaCom. "I think it goes away in two years."
The near-term reality is clear. The glare of the Super Bowl has put mainstream advertisers and youth marketers in an uncomfortable spotlight. At brands like MTV, whose mainstream acceptance is predicated on pushing the cultural envelope, the post-Super Bowl reality has left it serving two masters--a cultural overlord led by the FCC and a mass audience that continues to crave edgy material.
The young audiences that advertisers crave don't seem to care. A survey from Blue Fusion, a youth-marketing consultancy, done in the wake of the Janet Jackson controversy found that 74% of consumers ages 12 to 20 said CBS overreacted in its response.
"It wasn't even the nudity that mattered to them, it was the surprise," said Alissa Quart, the author of "Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers." "Surprise itself, especially a sexualized surprise, is such an expectation for teenagers. It's a genre convention. Physical exposure as surprise is the name of the game for them. I think this exposes CBS as hopelessly old-fashioned."
Therein lies the friction. It's impossible to please the moral minority and the edgy elite, forcing networks and advertisers to strike a delicate balance. In recent weeks, MTV asked popster Britney Spears to remove a suicide scene from her new video, while rockers Fountains of Wayne were also edited for a new broadcasting reality.
"I can see how MTV would be torn. I can see how they may feel a responsibility for creating this domino affect. But I also can see how they feel a responsibility to consumers like myself who like to see them push the envelope or do something fresh or something new," said Tina Wells, managing director at Blue Fusion. "It's one of those things where you decide how much is too much. Everyone's just kind of trying to figure out what the borders are."
Many artists who once were prime examples of debauched sensibility are rediscovering their boundaries. Christina Aguilera abandoned her goth-stripper look for a more sophisticated and demure image on Ellen Degeneres' talk show. Witness, too, the changing image of Sean Combs, better known as P.Diddy.
"I think we're sort of growing up as a company and as cultural leaders in this space," said Jameel Cline, chief marketing officer at Bad Boy Records. "If you think of Mr. Combs now, he's doing `Raisin in the Sun,' the last thing he did was Diddy Runs the City. It's more mainstream friendly. There's an enormous power that we bring to the table and we have to respect it."
"In my view, the realization has hit us that the grownups have been out of the room for too long," said Steve McKee, partner and creative director of McKee Wallwork Henderson. "It's time for those of us in the industry who respect people and respect their intelligence to enter back in. I think if there's an abiding lesson, it's that. Advertising tends to be a young business but that doesn't mean we have to be an immature business."
Two leading companies in media and retailing--Clear Channel and Wal-Mart--have already signaled that they would rather shield their customers from immature and offensive content, even if the bottom line suffers in the short-term, than potentially damage their relationship with those customers.
On Feb. 24, the same day as Mr. Stern's indecent broadcast, Clear Channel fired his fellow shock jock Todd Clem, aka "Bubba the Love Sponge." The FCC had proposed a record fine of $755,000 the month before for 26 indecency violations dating back to 2001. Clear Channel also announced its fourth-quarter results that afternoon, disappointing investors with the news that its radio division's revenue had fallen $13 million during the quarter because advertising had been soft.
Dumping Mr. Stern from its stations, firing Mr. Clem, and suspending other popular hosts the moment they cross the decency line will drive down ratings and won't help turn things around. But at the moment, Clear Channel executives are more concerned with keeping listeners and Congress happy. The company's radio chief, John Hogan, told a congressional subcommittee in February that he was "ashamed" of Mr. Clem and vowed that his colleagues had seen the light and were changing their strategy.
While cynics might accuse Clear Channel of simply kow-towing to political pressure or aiding its political allies (much has been made of its executives' contributions to Republican causes) the same cannot be said of Wal-Mart.
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The world's largest retailer spooked the publishing industry last summer when, in response to customer complaints, it withdrew Maxim, Stuff and FHM (the babe-saturated "lad" magazines) from its shelves and then partially obscured the covers of several women's-service mainstays, including Glamour and Cosmopolitan. Executives from the concerned parties flew to the company's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., in the vain hope it might reconsider. It didn't.
About one of every seven magazines sold over the counter in America is done so at Wal-Mart, and endangering that revenue stream might not be something that the Wal-Mart executives in charge of that business would have done willingly. But they may not have had a choice. "The decision on whether to cover up or throw out a magazine is made at a higher level than the magazine buyers," said a top circulation executive in regular contact with Wal-Mart. "It's probably being made in a whole other area of the company. The buyers would not have wanted to see hundreds of millions of dollars worth of sales being covered up."
The response by many publishers was indignation. Wal-Mart, they said, was effectively censoring magazines with its retail clout. But a few responded that the retailer was well within its rights to drop whatever magazines it chose in order to protect customers' shopping experience.
"[Wal-Mart executives] pay a lot of attention to what the magazines should be, and they just don't pick the ones they make the most money on," said Kent Brownridge, senior VP of Wenner Media, which publishes Us Weekly and Rolling Stone. "They got some complaints about a few of them, and Wal-Mart operates on the principle that the customer is always right."
Time Inc. took note and consulted extensively with Wal-Mart executives while planning the contents and packaging of All You, the company's new, inexpensive women's-service magazine announced last month. Priced between $1 and $2, the magazine is aimed at the heart of the Wal-Mart demographic, and Time executives made many trips to Bentonville to secure the company's backing.
The prospect of additional broadcasters and retailers pausing to decide which side they're on--an upholder of decency, or a fan of anything goes?--points to a media landscape about to undergo a new round of fragmentation. On top of demographic and psychographic considerations, the more urgent question is whether the end consumer is someone who is actually offended by offensive content, or one who smirks knowingly at it.
If broadcast and other truly mass media become the sole domain of the easily offended, then seeking consumers who are in on the joke will require hunting them down through tiers of increasingly niche-ified media. If not broadcast prime time, perhaps late night. If the message is still too hot, then cable, then pay cable, perhaps pay-per-view.
Howard Stern is currently weighing similar options. Having said on air that he expects to be fired by his syndicator, Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting, he has already considered migrating to subscription satellite radio services XM Radio or Sirius, or even creating a personal pay-per-listen channel, according to the New York Post.
"In the future, I see a content continuum," said David Verklin, CEO of Aegis Group's Carat North America. "On the far left of that continuum will be kids' programming, which will have an exceptional responsibility to be very content sensitive. On the far right will be pay-per-view, the Playboy Channel, for instance. I believe you're going to see advertising on pay-per-view. You're going to see a liquor advertiser buying ads on the Playboy Channel. They're seeing that's where their audience is. This is not about whether there's a new puritanism. What the advertising community, and particularly clients, want is predictability."
While Janet Jackson's Super Bowl stunt may finally blow over, the way Madonna's "Like a Prayer" campaign did in the 1980s, the congressional involvement and the impact that will have on the media business could be longer lasting.
For one, TV will no longer go out live, with a longer, 10-second tape delay employed, giving broadcasters more control over the airwaves so that they do not rack up massive fines that could, ultimately, cost their license and livelihood. This is not only a concern for the Grammys and Oscars, both of which have moved in this direction, but for others as well, like Nickelodeon, which recently instituted a tape delay for its daytime "U-Pick Live" variety show.
Morning radio will also be closely examined, if not for blatantly political reasons, then because the risk-reward profile has changed. With more and more listeners moving away from radio, and with satellite radio on the horizon, radio companies might not feel comfortable shocking listeners for a shrinking payout, forcing shock jocks to find new homes.
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"This scandal could do for satellite radio what MTV did for cable and what Milton Berle did for television," said Syracuse's Mr. Thompson.
But the biggest impact--and likely a permanent one--is that some advertisers may not risk selling edgy messages to large audiences. Or broadcasters may become more selective with regard to the messages they air.
"Already, you turn on MTV and you see totally different ads than the ones you see in other places," Mr. Thompson said. "Hallmark pretty much advertises on the programs that they can totally control, that bear their name and stuff like that."
Wal-Mart and Clear Channel are both moving to control their content--and so are pop stars such as P. Diddy and Ms. Aguilera. While Ms. Jackson's breast will not spell the death of sex or violence on TV, it may have killed off the mainstream for good.