Another Super Bowl half-time mishap keeps censors busy

The Nielsen Co. said that 114 million people watched Madonna’s dazzling halftime show, which was even more than the average of 111.3 million who watched the game. For NBC, that was a bit embarrassing.

Although it would not comment publicly how it was done technically, NBC network skillfully used its censor button during the Super Bowl Half-time show after British singer M.I.A. gave the finger to (and cursed at) those 114 million viewers. TV networks have all implemented some type of 5-10 second delay device to protect against such indiscretions on live TV. Basically the program feed is cached into a storage drive before it hits live air. This gives the director time (albeit not much) to switch cameras or beep something out.

During this year’s half-time show, once it was determined that the visual profanity was occurring, an NBC censor at NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Center, in New York pushed a button on a device connected to the outgoing broadcast stream to scramble the video picture and distort the audio.

[NEP Broadcasting, the production company that helped produce this year’s Super Bowl and half-time show telecasts, typically uses technology from Evertz (the 7743DLY-HD video delay card) and Abekas (“Air Cleaner”) on board their trucks for this purpose, but they were not used in Indianapolis, according to company sources.]

The mishap lasted all of two seconds and many viewers admit they never saw anything (it happened that quick).

“I never even noticed,” said Joan Kistner, a marketer from Chicago told the Associated Press. “It wasn’t until [the next] morning when I heard the news and so many people were talking about it that I knew it happened.”

The screen briefly went blurry to eliminate any discernable image, and then the program feed went to a commercial. It seemed the only practical way to do it and apparently the censor missed deleting it altogether by less than a full second.

Both NBC and the NFL—which puts on the halftime show—apologized. And they both pointed the finger (not the same one that M.I.A. used) at each other. The NFL blamed NBC for being not quick enough to censor the gesture, while NBC noted that the NFL is responsible for the content of the halftime show.

"The obscene gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate, very disappointing and we apologize to our fans," said Brian McCarthy, spokesman for the NFL. Apparently M.I.A. had not done anything similar during rehearsals.

"The NFL hired the talent and produced the halftime show," NBC spokesman Christopher McCloskey said. "Our system was late to obscure the inappropriate gesture and we apologize to our viewers."

The now infamous gesture was the talk of Twitter for hours Sunday night and still was to some extent Monday. Yet Tivo, a maker of digital video recorders that can accurately track usage by its has 2 million U.S.-based customers, said there wasn’t an appreciable increase in viewers that played back the offensive moment during Madonna's performance of “Give Me All Your Luvin’.”

Of course, NBC wants to avoid a costly firestorm like the one that erupted in 2004 over CBS’s broadcast of Janet Jackson’s nipple during the Super Bowl XXXVIII Half-time show. After the Jackson incident, the FCC increased the fine for each indecency to $325,000. This means that M.I.A.’s combined expletive and middle finger could cost NBC as much as $650,000. However, according to news reports, the NFL had M.I.A. and all of the performers sign a waiver in their contract beforehand that includes a clause to protect the league against government fines. NBC, in turn, supposedly worked an indemnify clause into its own agreement with the NFL, essentially leaving M.I.A. to potentially foot the bill, should a fine be levied. The FCC tried to fine CBS $550,000, but that was later dropped in a series of court challenges.

Apparently, many consumer groups, such as the Parents Television Council, were not satisfied with NBC or the NFL’s explanation.

“The mechanism NBC had in place to catch this type of material completely failed, and the network cannot say it was caught off guard,” Tim Winter, president of the PTC, told the website Fox411 ( “It has been eight years since the Janet Jackson striptease, and both NBC and the NFL knew full well what might happen. A simple apology rings hollow after yet another slap in the face to families, especially when NBC has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that it should be allowed to air all manner of indecent material at any time of day, even when children are watching.”

Broadcasters have argued that federal restrictions on indecent content are unconstitutionally vague and violate broadcasters’ First Amendment rights. The FCC’s “fleeting expletives” issue is currently being argued before the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in January and will decide the case by the end of June.