CBS got the bill Wednesday for Janet Jackson's (search) eye-catching flash dance during the Super Bowl halftime show: a record $550,000.
The Federal Communications Commission (search) voted unanimously to fine each of the 20 CBS-owned television stations $27,500, which is the maximum penalty for indecency. The singer's right breast was briefly exposed to millions of television viewers during the show.
The fine is the largest against a television broadcaster.
"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," said Michael Powell, the commission chairman.
The FCC decided not to fine CBS's more than 200 affiliate stations, which also aired the halftime show but are not owned by the network's parent company, Viacom Inc.
The agency cited the "unexpected nature of the halftime show and the apparent lack of involvement in the selection, planning, and approval of the telecast" by the affiliates.
The two Democrats on the five-member FCC panel said the fine should have been higher. It amounted to a "slap on the wrist" for such a huge company, said one commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein. He said the agency could have sent a stronger message by also reprimanding CBS' affiliates.
A statement issued by CBS said it is reviewing its options to respond to the ruling. The company has 30 days to ask for reconsideration and provide an explanation as to why the network should not be held liable.
"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. "Furthermore, our investigation proved that no one in our company had any advance knowledge about the incident."
Federal law bars radio and noncable television stations from airing, between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., references to sexual and excretory functions. Those are the hours when children are more apt to be watching television. Once a complaint is made to the FCC, the agency determines whether the broadcast was indecent.
The FCC has stepped up enforcement of the statute in recent years as complaints mounted about a coarsening of public airwaves. Critics, including radio host Howard Stern, claim the FCC is seeking to stifle free speech.
Jackson was at the end of a racy duet with singer Justin Timberlake (search) when he ripped off a piece of Jackson's black leather top, exposing her right breast.
Timberlake blamed a "wardrobe malfunction." CBS was quick to apologize to viewers. The incident generated a record number of FCC complaints -- more than 500,000.
Members of Congress soon began grumbling about smut on television. Both the House and Senate passed legislation that would dramatically raise indecency fines. The House voted to raise the fine to $500,000, while the Senate voted to increase it to $275,000 per indecent incident, with a cap of $3 million per day.
Differences between the measures are being reconciled.
Since the Super Bowl, some networks began using broadcast delays on live programs. CBS, for example, aired the Grammy awards ceremony a week after the Super Bowl with a five-minute delay. More recently, ABC used a 10-second delay for a pregame show to kick off the NFL season.