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Janet Jackson And How Houston’s Last Super Bowl Changed Live TV

It lasted barely half a second, but the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” stole the show – and led to an eight-year battle between the FCC and CBS that ended at the Supreme Court


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Photo of NRG Stadium
Florian Martin
NRG Stadium will host Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5.

Houston hosted its last Super Bowl in February 2004. The New England Patriots faced off against the Carolina Panthers at Reliant Stadium. But the most dramatic moment occurred during the halftime show.

It was one of the most notorious personal fouls in NFL history. Justin Timberlake ripped off part of Janet Jackson's costume. The result was what the singers later called a "wardrobe malfunction."

"Touchdown Hail Mary passes, tackles, things like that are long forgotten in Super Bowl history. But almost anyone can still tell you, if you mention Janet Jackson, they remember what happened," says Joe Cutbirth, who teaches media studies at the University of Houston's Jack J. Valenti School of Communication.

The incident still holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for "Most Searched News Item in Internet History." And it helped to launch a new business to compete with television for eyeballs and ad revenue.

"A lot of people may have forgotten," Cutbirth says, "but this incident at least in part was responsible for the creation of YouTube, according to at least one of the YouTube site's founders."

The FCC fined CBS more than half a million dollars for broadcast indecency. The Supreme Court ultimately threw out the fine in 2012, but the case put broadcasters on guard they could face large penalties for even fleeting nudity.