I WOKE UP the other day to discover that everyone in my country was appalled and disgusted by something they saw on national television. Imagine that! This time it was a Super Bowl halftime show, with Justin Timberlake ripping off some of Janet Jackson's S&M; costume to reveal her right breast for two seconds at the end of their performance of the song "Rock Your Body."
The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, apparently shocked that Up With People didn't headline the Super Bowl halftime show, called the Timberlake-Jackson ripoff "classless, crass and deplorable."
The NFL commissioner, apparently disappointed that CBS didn't book the New Christie Minstrels, called what happened "offensive, embarrassing ... and inappropriate."
I've heard nothing but outrage all week, with critics accusing CBS and its adoptive corporate parent Viacom of cynically lowering the standards of American television to further raise profits. And it wasn't just the Timberlake-Jackson thing that got everyone upset. Most of the halftime show had undertones of violence and sexual aggression.
Geez, imagine - a network television show that appeals to Americans' prurient fascinations with sex and violence.
What I want to know is: What's all the shock and surprise about?
Wake up and smell the hormones and rotting corpses!
CBS is full of this stuff, and I don't hear any uproar about it. In fact, it appears that millions of Americans accept and enjoy programs that exploit the prurient. CBS took the standard cop drama into graphic necropsy with CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. It's one of the more cynical shows out there, feeding off the public's desire to look under the coroner's sheet.
In case you've missed it - because you might spend weeknights actually reading books! - here are a few summaries of CSI plots, detailed on CBS' Web site:
"A dog brings home a human head."
"The fully clothed body of Debby Marlin is found in the shower of her suburban home. Her throat has been slashed."
"The body of Jill Damon, 23, is discovered by her father in her apartment. Cause of death is exsanguination." (Someone drained blood out of her body.)
"The shop foreman of Meteor Meat Co., an industrial meat-packing plant, finds a human arm in one of the facility's meat grinders."
"Jane Galloway, 25, is found brutally murdered in her apartment. Her body is posed, kneeling face-down in the toilet."
Happy with CSI's ratings, CBS came up with another such show: CSI: Miami.
Here are a few summaries of CSI: Miami plots:
"The tortured body of Juan Marco Varon, 50, is found duct-taped to a chair in his cigar shop. The murder weapon is the chaveta that he used to cut cigars. Woods finds two one-inch v-shaped third-degree burn lesions on his back. His genitals, which are found under a table on the other side of the room, have been severed with a non-serrated edge, probably by the same weapon that sliced his throat."
"The body of Benito Ramon, 40, is found with his head crushed on the floor of the crematorium he operates. Near the body is a shoebox containing several gold teeth, presumably taken from the bodies he was to incinerate."
And let's not forget another CSI spinoff on CBS: Navy NCIS.
Next episode: "With the help of his agents, Gibbs must locate a sniper who is killing Marine recruiters and leaving a white feather behind as his calling card."
And then there are all those reality shows.
On NBC's Fear Factor, a guy had to swim in garbage searching for canisters filled with pig uterus and cow stomach that his girlfriend had to eat.
So Justin Timberlake grabs and reveals Janet Jackson's breast for a second or two during the Super Bowl show, and everyone gets in a dither. (Did anyone see the CBS promos for the Grammy Awards during the Super Bowl? Britney Spears appeared to be wearing a transparent bodysuit in them.)
I agree: The Timberlake-Jackson thing was crude and an act of sexual aggression.
But networks present violent, exploitative and salacious programming and commercials all year, week in and week out, and only fringe groups - too frequently dismissed as "the family values crowd" - form the chorus of protest.
Contemporary television, desperate for ratings in the expanding universe of cable TV and the Internet, is full of the exploitative, the violent and the vulgar - and it's widely accepted, and millions let themselves get sucked into watching it. There are thousands of hours of crude and crass programming in the American television year, most of it pretty profitable. It's tempting to hope that the Jackson-Timberlake thing will teach CBS a lesson, but I doubt it. In fact, it probably gave the network an idea: CSI: Super Bowl.