Despite the fact that few viewers even noticed the incident, British hip-hop artist M.I.A.’s obscene gesture during the Super Bowl XLVI halftime show on Sunday has drawn harsh criticism of both the NFL and NBC this week. Although the NFL was responsible for hiring the talent and producing the halftime show, it was NBC’s responsibility to edit any obscene content out of the broadcast.
“Our system was late to obscure the inappropriate gesture,” says NBC Sports spokesman Chris McCloskey. “We apologize to our viewers.”
As it turns out, the NBC Sports crew was less than a second late in its attempt to blur when M.I.A. flipped her middle finger directly at the camera. According to McCloskey, the Super Bowl telecast was on a five-second delay, and the network missed blurring the gesture by just ⅔ of a second. The telecast’s image was blurred just after the image was shown, but, by then, it was too late.
Aside from the M.I.A. episode, the halftime show featuring Madonna, which was produced for the NBC telecast out of NEP Denali’s California production truck, went off without a hitch, drawing mostly positive reviews from both critics and fans.
Nonetheless, the postgame buzz surrounding the performance and even the game itself has been dominated by talk of the M.I.A. incident, drawing comparisons to Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show in 2004, which aired on CBS. Eight years later, CBS remains entangled with the FCC in a messy court battle over indecency fines.
In addition to the gesture, M.I.A. also appeared to mouth the words “I don’t give a shit,” further angering watch groups like the Parents Television Council.
“The mechanism NBC had in place to catch this type of material completely failed, and the network cannot say it was caught off guard,” the PTC said in a statement. “It has been eight years since the Janet Jackson striptease, and both NBC and the NFL knew full well what might happen. They chose a lineup full of performers who have based their careers on shock, profanity, and titillation. Instead of preventing indecent material, they enabled it.”
Further complicating matters, Sunday’s Super Bowl telecast was the most-watched program in the history of American television (averaging 111.3 million viewers), and the halftime show drew the largest audience of any halftime show featuring entertainment (114.0 million viewers; records date back to 1991).
However, few viewers actually reported noticing the M.I.A. gesture, and, according to a spokesman for DVR supplier TiVo, there wasn’t a significant increase in viewers’ playing back the moment. It was not until Twitter and other social-media outlets erupted minutes later that the event became a mainstream item.
According to the NFL, M.I.A. did not act out anything even resembling the gesture during rehearsals and gave the league no reason to be alarmed.
“The obscene gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate, very disappointing,” said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, “and we apologize to our fans.”
However, despite efforts from the league and NBC, the PTC remains unimpressed, saying, “NBC fumbled and the NFL lied because a performer known as M.I.A. felt it necessary to flip off millions of families.”