ARLINGTON, Va. -- Maybe it's appropriate that Super Bowls are numbered with Roman numerals. Super Bowl XXXVIII on Sunday featured a halftime show that could have served as a backdrop for one of Caligula's orgies.
Remember Super Bowl XXXIV? The halftime entertainment was produced by Walt Disney Productions. This year's was put on by MTV, and the difference was as stark as that between heaven and hell, between good taste and garbage. The commercials also reflected what the networks apparently think about our remaining "community standards."
Janet Jackson, a member of America's most dysfunctional family, bared a breast during her onstage gyrations. There were the usual network apologies to "anyone who was offended." Ms. Jackson's singing partner, Justin Timberlake, should get the award for the ultimate in disingenuousness: "I am sorry that anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction. ... It was not intentional." Sure. Why, then, was Ms. Jackson wearing a pasty instead of underwear that might have limited her exposure during the "malfunction"?
Other singers, including P. Diddy, grabbed their crotches (a la Michael Jackson) and promised through their lyrics to have sex with gyrating women, who signaled their interest by removing some of their skimpy outfits.
There were so many commercials for erectile dysfunction medications, one might have thought it has become an epidemic, on a par with AIDS or cancer. Other commercials featured a flatulent horse igniting a candle that blows up in a woman's face; a dog that bites a man in the crotch until he surrenders his beer; and a chimpanzee that puts the moves on a woman and then asks if she has a problem with back hair.
CBS, once known as the "Tiffany network," has been gobbled up by its MTV division and morphed into the trash network. Sunday's halftime show was soft porn, and those apologies and assurances -- that the excess was a surprise to management and won't happen again -- are insufficient. A father, his children and grandchildren (and women who like football) should be able to experience rare family time in front of the television set in their own home without being surprised by such sleaze.
CBS should have expected trash. Anyone who watches even a little MTV knows that raunch-'n'-roll is standard programming fare. If you hire people like these, you're not going to get gospel music.
The FCC -- which recently warned it might start issuing heavier fines for indecency and obscenity, and revoking broadcast licenses -- announced a "thorough and swift" investigation into the halftime show. But it's a little late for the FCC and its chairman, Michael Powell, to be expressing outrage. Where was the commission during CBS' Victoria's Secret Fashion Show? Why didn't the agency take action after singer Bono of U2 uttered the F-word during NBC's airing of the Golden Globe Awards last year?
It's easy for free-speech advocates to argue that if you don't like something, you shouldn't watch. But the halftime show came as a complete surprise to viewers and, I suspect, was unwelcome by many, to judge from the calls that flooded CBS.
Freedom of speech should also allow for viewers to be free from speech they don't want to hear, and images they don't wish to see, on broadcast television, especially with young children in the room. A TV ratings system is supposed to warn audiences what to expect so they can decide whether to watch or not, and shield their children or not. One doesn't expect this sort of thing from the Super Bowl.
The National Football League says it won't hire MTV to produce another halftime show. As for CBS, it has trolled too deep and gone too far in its quest for younger viewers. Just after the Jackson-Timberlake fiasco, a nearly naked man streaked onto the field. If his "act" had been moved up a few minutes, he would have fit seamlessly into their show. CBS cameramen focused elsewhere. Was the network suddenly gripped by pangs of puritanical morality?
One commentator made a joking reference to "naked football." I was ready for some football. I was not ready for this.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.