Sports Law • Risk Management

M.I.A. Steals the Super Bowl Spotlight

Another Super Bowl has come and gone, but only a few are talking about the commercials and the actual game. Instead this year’s water cooler discussion is how yet another halftime show has gone awry.

The featured headline performer this year was the iconic Madonna. She lived up to expectations and gave a dynamic show. Although Madonna was the main performer, she shared the stage with several other popular musicians, one of which was M.I.A. NBC, who was televising the event, made a late attempt to blur the image of her giving the audience the offending middle finger. In addition to the middle finger, it also is believed that she used a curse word while performing her song.

This follows in the wake of the controversy from the 2004 Super Bowl halftime incident. During that show, performer Justin Timberlake caused Janet Jackson’s onstage costume to come undone and her breast to be exposed on television. For that incident, however, there was a dispute as to whether or not the exposure was accidental.

Following the M.I.A. debacle, NBC cited a failure in its delay system as its reason for blurring the screen only after the offending middle finger was aired on television. With other competing technologies from the live audience likely recording and posting information about the show, NBC obviously would not want the show to be significantly delayed from the actual live performance. But, for the delay system to effectively work, an NBC employee has to sit alert with only seconds to respond to blur out any potentially offending content. The delay system may be a good idea to catch some potential FCC violations, but it is not a fail-proof system. According the ABC News report, M.I.A.’s actions could cause NBC to be fined up to $650,000.

Although the fines will likely just be attributed to NBC and maybe to the offending performer, the producers of the Super Bowl, have a responsibility to ensure that a quality, incident free show is given. Thus, the best solution is to be careful in the selection as to who will give a halftime show. Racy and historically controversial performers may not be an ideal choice for a family event, like the Super Bowl, that is nationally televised. Furthermore, it should be made clear, in the performer’s contract, the types of actions and behavior that is not appropriate for the show.

Giving the middle finger is an intentional act, whereas a wardrobe “malfunction” may have been accidental. Would an apology from M.I.A. be enough? It is fair to think that M.I.A. will likely be missing from future halftime shows.