Back in the days before DVRs and movies on demand, what television networks aired really mattered. If something wasn't on television, you didn't watch it. If something really, really good was on, everyone was watching it. This was why ABC started the tradition of showing Saving Private Ryan every Veterans Day for nearly five years. It was really good, and everyone watched it.
Then one Super Bowl night, Janet Jackson's privates changed the cultural landscape of the United States.
None of us were prepared for what was about to happen.
It goes without saying (but I'm going to anyway) that Saving Private Ryan is easily one of the best – if not the best – war films ever made. Its realism is unmatched, and the Omaha Beach landings are so realistic, actual World War II veterans called it the most realistic they'd ever seen, it caused post-traumatic stress-related episodes in theaters, and the VA had to set up a hotline just for vets who were shook by the film.
Saving Private Ryan influenced every World War II film that came after it and sparked a resurgence in Americans' waning interest in World War II and highlighted the declining numbers of surviving World War II veterans. So it makes sense that the ABC television network would decide to show the film every year on Veterans Day, uncut and with limited commercial interruptions. The profanity and combat scenes were left in their entirety on network television. All that changed after 2004.
There are people in the post-9/11 U.S. that think this is the worst thing that ever happened to America.
On February 1st, 2004, Super Bowl XXXVIII saw the New England Patriots defeat the upstart Carolina Panthers. But no one remembers the score of the game because all anyone could talk about for the next decade was Janet Jackson's right nipple. During the halftime show, a young Justin Timberlake joined Jackson on stage. At the end of their performance and the halftime show itself, Timberlake ripped off part of Jackson's outfit, revealing her right breast to the millions of people who were watching for roughly half a second.
The backlash was immediate. The FCC tried to give CBS the largest fine it ever handed down. Jackson's music was blacklisted from TV and radio worldwide, and the phrase "wardrobe malfunction" entered the American lexicon. More than that, politicians used the controversy to attempt to curtail material deemed inappropriate for general consumption on network television. Even Congress jumped on board. Watch New Mexico Representative and future Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson practically break down in tears over a half-second of Janet Jackson's nipple.
Victims of the knee-jerk veer toward self-censorship included daytime soap operas, Bono, Howard Stern, the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, and more. By Veterans Day 2004, nine months later, the backlash had still not died down, and when it came time to show Saving Private Ryan in its traditional Veterans Day primetime slot, ABC affiliates began to balk. When the uncut version of the film began to air, a large chunk of ABC stations opted not to show the film – even though the Walt Disney Company offered to pay any FCC fines incurred by airing it.
Randy Sharp of the American Family Association, said that Ryan's language — the f-word is used at least 20 times — is not suitable for children watching at 8 p.m. "It may be OK on the battlefield, but it's not OK on the public airwaves during prime-time broadcast hours."
Instead of seeing the greatest, most realistic war movie on Veterans Day, some people instead saw Return to Mayberry, a made-for-TV movie based on the Andy Griffith Show, where Andy, Opie, and Barney Fife solve the mystery of a local lake monster.
There was no fallout from airing Saving Private Ryan – at least, not from the Federal government. The end result was that ABC no longer shows the film every Veterans Day. At a time when the United States was fighting two wars – Afghanistan and Iraq – and still reeling from the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a half-second of what is now the world's most famous nipple was enough to distract the country from nearly everything else.