TV moments that landed networks in hot water with the FCC

Long after the FCC censored George Carlin, her next big fight in the public spotlight came in 2004. During the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson became the subject of massive controversy when Timberlake ripped off part of Jackson’s outfit, exposing her bare breasts to the estimated 90 million viewers watching live. The incident drew numerous complaints from viewers at the FCC and led to Timberlake coining the term wardrobe malfunction to refer to the brief, random nudity.

The FCC fined CBS $550,000 for broadcasting uncensored nudity. When CBS refused to pay, the case went to court. CBS argued that the FCC changed its policy to issue the fine and that moving the goalposts, coupled with the high level of ambiguity in the wording of their policies, 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 rejected the FCC’s punishment.

CBS eventually won its lawsuit in 2012, but it took millions of dollars and several years to achieve this favorable outcome. Networks with fewer resources cannot afford to mess with the FCC, even if they try to impose questionable fines. Before the court case was over, the Super Bowl scandal marked a turning point for the FCC. As a result, they became much stricter and began handing out larger fines with increasing regularity.

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