Editorial: Credibility malfunction

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Shame on Viacom, CBS and MTV. Janet Jackson's breast-of-show on the MTV-produced Super Bowl halftime event was unacceptable. Explanations that CBS and MTV were shocked, shocked by this "wardrobe malfunction" lack credibility and insult viewers, advertisers and critics. In a flash, the broadcast managed to damage the biggest event in advertising, taint CBS's reputation and bring on an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission. There are consequences for crossing the line.

Don't-blame-me's are tiresome. MTV created the show. CBS was responsible for what was broadcast to 90 million people-one third of the U.S. population. Viacom had to ensure that content produced by its edgy cable channel was appropriate for a mainstream network reaching millions of children.

What if executives truly were clueless about the halftime peak show? Then they apparently lack control over what goes over the airwaves. CBS censored an anti-Bush commercial from MoveOn.org, which wanted to buy a spot, yet CBS ignores its own broadcast standards. It is possible to choreograph halftime shows in which the empress keeps on her clothes.

The game was great, ratings were up and ad prices broke a record (even if most of the ads were forgettable). But CBS and MTV turned a win into a loss. It didn't happen in a vacuum. TV networks have pushed content to the end of the shock-and-awe scale in shortsighted schemes to snare ratings. It's inevitable that networks will cross the line.

There are consequences. This episode hurt the image of the Super Bowl-right as the NFL and networks prepare to negotiate a new contract. (Note to NFL: time to entirely rethink the halftime program concept.) Halftime sponsor America Online hasn't been implicated, but advertisers have to know brands are at risk when controversies erupt on shows they sponsor. MTV perhaps boosted its image with its target audience. But CBS embarrassed itself by taking its eye off America. Viacom, CBS and MTV gave themselves a black eye.

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