Americans huddled around water coolers yesterday much as they have after 37 Super Bowls before, but they weren't talking about "the big play," or even "the best commercial."
This year - on coffee breaks, in e-mails, at women's organizations and at the headquarters of the Federal Communications Commission - they were focused on "the breast."
Specifically, pop singer Janet Jackson's right breast - exposed when fellow performer Justin Timberlake tore off a piece of her gladiator's costume at the end of the duo's halftime performance of the song "Rock Your Body."
Viewed by 72,000 fans in Houston's Reliant Stadium, and an estimated 89 million more watching on television, Jackson's right breast - clad only in a tiny, sun-shaped metal ornament and shown on TV in a brief flash - will likely be the single image that lives on, more than any interception, touchdown or last-minute field goal.
Super Bowl XXXVIII will be remembered as the kickoff of a controversy.
Jackson's halftime exposure comes at a time when the Federal Communications Commission, under the Bush administration, is becoming more vigilant in enforcing decency restrictions on broadcasters during primary viewing hours.
FCC chief Michael Powell called the display "a classless, crass and deplorable stunt," and promised a "thorough and swift" investigation. The FCC could impose a heavy fine, possibly amounting to millions, for the incident.
The FCC last week proposed a $755,000 fine-the largest ever for a broadcast indecency violation-for Clear Channel Communications for airing sexually explicit material on many of its radio stations. And Powell is currently seeking to reverse an earlier ruling that failed to penalize NBC for allowing rocker Bono of U2 to use profanity during last year's Golden Globes broadcast.
The Bush administration wants to make penalties for such violations as much as 10 times higher.
Timberlake, Jackson, CBS and MTV, which produced the Super Bowl halftime show, all called it an accident - "a wardrobe malfunction," in Timberlake's words. But many weren't buying it.
"It was a behavior malfunction. People's clothes stay on unless you try to pull them off," said Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations. "I don't believe for a moment that CBS didn't know this would happen."
"It was a violent act of sexual aggression," she added. "When people see this kind of thing happen on network TV and by famous individuals like Timberlake, they think this is OK. ... A big part of that audience is teen-age boys, who get a lot of wrong ideas about how to treat women. I'd like for the network to apologize to the women of the United States."
Some were offended by the undertones of violence, some more by a bare breast aired on early-evening television - and at that epitome of Americana, the Super Bowl, no less.
The incident dominated radio talk shows and quickly spread across the Internet. Although Jackson's breast was flashed on TV for only a second, close-up photos were soon available on Web sites.
A spokesman at television recording service TiVo said the Timberlake-Jackson duet was replayed by almost twice as many TiVo viewers as any moment in the football game - and drew the biggest spike in audience reaction TiVo has ever measured.
TiVo said viewership jumped 180 percent as hundreds of thousands of households used their replay machines to pause and play the incident repeatedly.
Timberlake snatched at Jackson's body armor as he sang these words: Are you feeling me/ Let's do something/ Let's make a bet/Cause I gotta have you naked by the end of this song.
Late yesterday, the performers said Jackson's red lace bra was supposed to remain on when Timberlake tore off the black leather bustier. In a statement released last night, Jackson said it was a last-minute stunt that went awry.
"The decision to have a costume reveal at the end of my halftime show performance was made after final rehearsals. MTV was completely unaware of it," Jackson said. "It was not my intention that it go as far as it did. I apologize to anyone offended - including the audience, MTV, CBS and the NFL."
CBS apologized for the incident, as did MTV, which produced its second Super Bowl halftime show for CBS; the first was in 2001, when the Baltimore Ravens played the New York Giants. Both networks are owned by media conglomerate Viacom.
In a statement released earlier yesterday, MTV said, "The tearing of Janet Jackson's costume was unrehearsed, unplanned, completely unintentional and was inconsistent with assurances we had about the content of the performance."
NFL officials announced it would be unlikely that MTV would do a Super Bowl halftime show again; commissioner Paul Tagliabue called the episode "offensive, embarrassing to us and our fans, and inappropriate."
Others, however, saw it as a harmless bit of envelope pushing.
"I have seen costumes which were almost, if not more, revealing on the red carpets of the People's Choice, Oscar and Golden Globes award shows," said media consultant Larry Gerbrandt.
"In some respects, the outrage is overblown and calculated for political effect," said Gerbrandt, chief content officer and senior analyst for Kagan World Media in California.
Lawrence K. Grossman, former president of PBS and NBC News, said the FCC scrutiny is warranted.
Because television and radio stations broadcast on publicly held frequencies, the FCC has been given authority to restrict "indecent" content between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. In recent years, radio shock jocks have stretched the limits of propriety and broadcast television producers have emulated more explicit cable fare.
The responsibility for the Super Bowl incident lies with corporate parent Viacom, Grossman says.
Among organizations voicing objections to both the Bono and Super Bowl incidents was the Family Research Council, whose president urged the FCC to hold CBS accountable for yesterday's action.
"It is a sad day when parents cannot even let their children watch the Super Bowl without having to worry about nudity and other vulgarity creeping into their living rooms," said president Tony Perkins.
President Bush was watching the game, but said he missed the show: "Saw the first half, did not see the halftime - I was preparing for the day and fell asleep," he told reporters yesterday.
Chip Franklin, morning radio talk-show host on Baltimore's WBAL-AM (1090), said most of yesterday's callers wanted to discuss the breast-baring incident, and most were bothered by it. "The phone lines were full the entire two hours," he said.
To some media observers, the display was just the latest ratcheting up of outrageous televised displays - the sequel to singers Madonna and Britney Spears kissing during the MTV Video Music Awards - leaving some wondering what this Sunday's Grammy Awards broadcast, also on CBS, might have in store.
Kevin Cowherd, David Folkenflik and Annie Linskey of The Sun staff and Sun news services contributed to this report.