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MTVN’s McGrath Describes Aftermath of ‘Nipplegate’

3/31/2004 8:52 AM Eastern

New York -- MTV Networks Group president Judy McGrath described in detail Wednesday the strain, pressure and "demoralizing" repercussions the Janet Jackson Super Bowl nipple-bearing incident had on MTV: Music Television, which produced the halftime event for CBS.

"It’s clearly a company built on creative risks, creative business thinking, and something like this makes you want to go into a cave," McGrath said during a "Cable Leaders" panel at the Women in Cable & Telecommunications Forum here.

The whole controversy, McGrath told the audience, lead to a lot of soul-searching at MTV and MTVN.

"One thing happens and, all of a sudden, everything about you comes into question. A few weeks before, MTV was riding high," with hits like Newlyweds doing well, according to McGrath.

But in the aftermath of Jackson’s breast being bared on national television, McGrath said, MTV’s staff was "embarrassed, demoralized, conflicted … It was very tough. You have to have cultural values in a company, and you can’t go against them in a moment of crisis."

McGrath spoke about the "Nipplegate" incident when the panel -- which included Cox Communications Inc. CEO Jim Robbins, Time Warner Cable president Glenn Britt, ABC Cable Networks Group president Anne Sweeney, Cablevision Systems Corp. cable president Tom Rutledge and Comcast Corp. executive vice president of sales and marketing Dave Watson -- was asked about dealing with a bad day, a crisis situation.

McGrath described the Jackson incident as "three-quarters of a second on a broadcast television and 13 frames of video." She said she was sitting in the stadium when the flashing took place, so she didn’t see it on TV.

But once the exposure happened, she added, "My ever-present Blackberry kept going off."

MTV’s staff "has slowly come back" now from the impact of the incident, according to McGrath, but she talked about the firestorm of debate it sparked. MTV has said that it had no idea Jackson planned to do the stunt.

"The days following, there were so many things that came to the surface … really profound conversations about a black woman and a white man, issues of race, issues of sort of integrity and belief … one of the things MTV prides itself on is reading the room, understanding audiences," McGrath said. "Did we, in fact, not read the room? Did we not read the 90 million people correctly?"

Ultimately, McGrath said, "You have to be true to your audience and responsible to your industry. In the days and weeks [after], trying to be clear about sticking to what we intended to do this year -- which was "Choose or Lose," and launching a lot of new shows and not getting completely distracted -- we’d kind of take the temperature on the situation every day, every week, every month. We did a couple of knee-jerk things that I think we regretted."

According to McGrath, "It would be very tempting to go on an apology tour, which,

I think, would have been a mistake, given that we definitely felt certainly some level of responsibility and concern for the ripple effect of this thing …You just have to be smart about the implications. This is an artist we had a long relationship with. It was very tough."

When McGrath finished her remarks on Jackson, Robbins chimed in and said,

"I can pick up where Judy left off because I got it in spades from Sen. John McCain [R-Ariz.] last week."

September