Volume 12, Issue 7 ~ February 12-18, 2004

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Burton on the Bay

The Boob Tube Re-Earns Its Title

Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.
— Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson: 1763

Things have changed much in the past 241 years, Boz. It is not infrequent to see a circus or other dog on the entertainment route walking on its hind legs, and it’s no longer uncommon at all to note the preacher behind the pulpit wearing a skirt.

Though no longer can either be considered unexpected, an event occurred on the aptly named boob tube the first day of this month that was certainly not, as you said, done well. Most of us were surprised (though we shouldn’t have been) to see it done at all.

Whether impromptu, as originally claimed by performers, or not, as most of us tend to think, the show had one saving grace. It was so unspectacular (no, make that boring), that many in the audience had taken an intermission from the performance, catnapping, as I was, or switching to another channel until the main event returned to the screen.

I’m referring, of course, to what was billed as the halftime extravaganza of Super Bowl XXXVIII on the CBS network — of which we’ve heard so much the past couple of weeks.

You’d have heard from me sooner, except for an old piece of advice followed by newspaper columnists and editorial writers. If you have written something more than moderately critical of someone or something, sleep on it. Read it the next day when the blood pressure has dropped below 220/120, and decide whether your words were indeed appropriate.

That, dear readers, is why one week ago you did not see in this space my usual wrap-up of the Super Bowl. I wanted to sleep on my highly critical thoughts — the words that swirled in my noggin — for a night or two before putting them on a blue screen, then e-mailing them to the editor, from whom they are soon e-mailed to a printer and then distributed to you readers.

The Wrong Time and the Wrong Place
Look, I’m no prude; let me make that plain. I served in the Navy SeaBees among older men with construction work backgrounds; I’ve seen and heard it all — or just about all. In my younger days, a few times I visited Baltimore’s infamous Block with fellow journalists. Hundreds if not thousands of times I’ve fished on all-men trips. And I’ve attended more than a few stag parties and smokers over the years.

But for many things, there is the, shall we say, appropriate time and place. The Super Bowl is neither the time nor place to rip off a bra as a blitzing linebacker would try to do with a quarterback’s shoulder pads. Had the term boob tube not been coined more than several decades ago for other reasons, it would have earned that moniker in prime time, February 1, 2004.

For ages, we have been under the delusion that socially distasteful scenes were relegated to late night or wee hours of the morning broadcasting — though we have noticed that increasingly the boundaries were being stretched at times when kids join their parents and friends before the boob tube. Super Bowl XXXVIII crossed those boundaries, and it did away with that illusion.

It’s distasteful enough among many youngsters seated with their parents (and, let’s face it, also some adults) to see a bared boob on the tube. But to have clothing ripped off on the screen, well that sends a curious and socially unacceptable message to youngsters, many of whom that evening were in the company of their parents and other adults. Another standard was set (or is it more appropriate to say lowered?) for sleaze on television.

Down the Slippery Slope
Yet it was bound to happen. For a couple of decades now, step by step, obscenities in speech, suggestive innuendo and distasteful visuals have surrounded us. But Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake took the giant step. They went for the long ball — and these players weren’t even on the field.

Why? Perhaps, and with justification, they realized the halftime show was a flop. It was not even as exciting as the first quarter of the game itself, though the last three quarters of the showdown kept the 72,000 fans on the edge of their seats. So with fans in Houston’s Reliant Stadium and viewers on the tube bored by their performances, Jackson and Timberlake could have thought it necessary to add a bit of zest ala-Howard Stern as a grand finale to the sorry mid-game show.

Or, equally credible in theory, they could have realized many should-be viewers on the tube had switched channels in search of more entertaining halftime entertainment — like looking out the window to watch the snow melt or, like me, doing and dreaming.

So I missed the original exposure, but not for long. I was awakened by “did-you-see-what-I-saw” exclamations of others in the room at Crofton where I had gone to see my favorite Patriots successfully play for the championship on a screen almost as big as the blanket for a king-size bed. TVs of that size and price have all kinds of new-fangled gadgets, and on this set there was one that allowed viewers to replay scenes.

I didn’t believe what the audience of all adults in the room told me they thought they had seen. No, not in the Super Bowl! But how right they were. There it was, the preliminaries to a rape on the big screen at prime time, undoubtedly millions of kids taking it all in.

Of course, once the post-game shock value subsided, there were the apologies from all concerned: CBS, MTV, Jackson, Timberlake et alia. MTV and the two featured entertainers had made a name for themselves, which is what performers thrive on these days. But the I’m sorrys were as hollow as was the old Wye Oak, whose vacant innards could have housed Dolly and Anna, the two elephants of the Baltimore Zoo.

Methinks the apologies were meant more — or only — for the FCC, which immediately, and rightfully, started looking into the sordid orgy.

That wasn’t the only raunchy aspect of Super Bowl XXXVIII; there were also commercials that would have raised eyebrows only a decade ago.

Maybe it’s old fashioned to think that prime-time television should broadcast nothing more distasteful than one would accommodate at the dinner table. But even before the halftime show there was the beer commercial featuring a horse, to put it bluntly, breaking wind, which was ignited by a candle, sending a fireball into the face of a woman. How gross can the boob tube get?

Enough Is Enough
Probably all of what was seen at XXXVIII would have been acceptable after 11pm or on an X-rated channel, but this was a football game. Football has become the nation’s most watched sport, and not just among adults.

Unless the NFL pays more attention to what goes on off the field in its Super Bowls, perhaps delayed broadcast is in order. Delayed, with an opening kickoff at 11pm. Fans can take in the game via radio, send the kids to bed, then watch the game, commercials and halftime show in the wee hours.

Enough is enough. Enough said.

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Last updated February 12, 2004 @ 2:21am.