In 2004, Janet Jackson was one of the biggest stars on the planet, so big in fact that she was invited to play at the Super Bowl. During that Super Bowl, Justin Timberlake tore open Janet Jackson’s costume and revealed her breast to 140 million people. Justin Timberlake’s next album sold over 10 million copies. Janet Jackson’s next album Damita Jo sold only three million copies.
Why the discrepancy? It had a lot to do with the fact that Janet Jackson was blacklisted by Viacom and CBS, MTV, Clear Channel Communications, and Infinity Broadcasting, or — in other words — the places that play and show music. Though Timberlake and Jackson had been banned from the Grammys (which aired a week after the Super Bowl), Timberlake had been able to “tearfully” apologize to Les Moonves and appear to read a scripted apology. Jackson — who did issue an apology after the performance — was not contrite enough to Les Moonves personally, so he basically took out her marketing kneecaps.
The CBS chief executive, according to sources who spoke to me, was furious that Jackson didn’t make a similarly contrite apology to him. The fallout from the incident inflicted significant damage on Jackson’s career ― which until that point had produced 10 No. 1 hits ― and still reverberates to this day.
Moonves ordered Viacom properties VH1 and MTV, and all Viacom-owned radio stations, to stop playing Jackson’s songs and music videos. The move had a huge impact on sales of her album “Damita Jo,” which was released in March 2004, just a month after the Super Bowl.
A major point of controversy, particularly among Jackson’s black fans, was that the reaction to the wardrobe malfunction fell solely on Jackson’s shoulders, even though Timberlake was the one who actually pulled off the fabric to reveal her breast. While Jackson’s career was significantly damaged, Timberlake’s flourished. CBS insiders who spoke to me felt strongly that Moonves played a large part in how Jackson was perceived by the public.
Years later, when Simon & Schuster — another company owned by Viacom — signed Jackson to a book deal, Moonves reportedly asked, “How the f—k did she slip through?”
Moonves is reportedly negotiating a $100 million exit deal from CBS after being accused by six women of sexual misconduct.
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