Guest column

Assuming he’s still in the race after last night’s primaries, Howard Dean may have just won my vote for president– thanks to Janet Jackson.

I disagree with his stand on most of the issues, but the dauntless doctor from Vermont proved to me he may be the last sane politician alive. When asked about the current controversy over Jackson’s two-second flash of nudity during the Super Bowl halftime show, Dean told a wire service he found the media frenzy “to be a bit of a flap about nothing,”

“In general, I think the FCC does have a role in promoting some reasonable standard of decency,” Dean said. “However, considering what’s on television these days, I think the FCC is being pretty silly about investigating this. I don’t find it terribly shocking relative to some of the things you can find on standard cable television. I think the FCC probably has a lot of other things they should be pursuing.”

Amen, brother Dean.

Far more offensive than a two-second, blink-and-you-missed-it shot of a woman’s right breast is the way in which most politicians have predictably attempted to exploit the issue for their own gain.

Jackson should not have stripped at the Super Bowl. That’s just common sense.

It also seems pretty clear by now that Eye execs had no idea Jackson planned to bare all on live TV.

Network execs are some of the most risk averse people on earth– witness “CSI: New York” and “Law & Order 4”– and Eye chairman Leslie Moonves had been feeling particularly cautious after the brouhahas over “The Reagans” and the “60 Minutes” interview with Michael Jackson. Forget about the FCC or family values: There’s no way he or anyone working for him would risk advertiser or affiliate backlash so that Jackson could come off as cutting edge.

If the Viacom companies are guilty of anything, it’s trusting that a Grammy-winning performer such as Jackson would act professionally– as she has since she began her showbiz career as a child — and not decide to essentially hijack a live network broadcast by veering so far off the pre-approved script.

Nonetheless, FCC chairman Michael Powell, who failed miserably at selling a completely logical set of dereg rules, couldn’t get in front of the cameras fast enough. Without a minute of investigation, Powell all but convicted CBS of pushing porn over the public airwaves.

Then there’s Sen. Fred Upton (R-Michigan), who must have cried tears of joy when he heard about Jackson’s titillating two seconds. Upton’s been looking to dramatically increase fines for so-called indecent broadcasts, while Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.) is pushing a dangerous bit of legislation that would specifically prohibit broadcasters from using the so-called seven dirty words on air, no matter what the reason.

“The race to the bottom continues,” Upton said, implying CBS and MTV approved Jackson’s actions. “How low can we go?”

Has Upton actually watched the Big Six nets lately? Compared to what else is out there in the media universe, broadcast TV in primetime resembles a virtual Pleasantville.

Yes, primetime is racier than it was even 10 years ago. Sitcoms like “Friends” or “Will & Grace” regularly use puns and double-entendres to spice up plotlines, and Dennis Franz still says “asshole” every so often on “NYPD Blue.”

But because they’re slaves to Madison Ave., broadcasters don’t dare put on the sort of envelope-pushing programming seen regularly on basic cable networks like ESPN and FX. Latter cablers both air critically-hailed series unafraid of showing more than two seconds of a bare breast or featuring dialogue peppered with the s-word.

Meanwhile, mainstream retailers like Target sell CDs featuring every obscene word known to man, while radio stations now barely bleep out four-letter words from hit songs such as Eamon’s break-up ballad “Fuck It.” You don’t even want to know about the gore and violence present in many popular videogames.

Some argue that broadcasters should be held to a different standard because they use the “public” airwaves, because as free services they’re essentially “uninvited guests” in a family’s home.

Yet when roughly 90% of viewers get their TV — their NBC and their MTV– through cable or a dish, it’s time to abandon a double standard adopted when Lucy was “with child” rather than pregnant. The average teen makes no distinction between Channel 4 or 400.

That doesn’t mean Ray Romano should start telling Doris Roberts to “Shut the fuck up” on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” or that Jack Bauer’s TV daughter should start prancing around CTU topless (as delightful as that might be to some of us).

Instead, Powell and his fellow politicos ought to have more confidence in market forces to regulate a commerical medium. Primetime is relatively puritanical because advertisers are generally reluctant to be associated with risque fare. Bono’s “fucking brilliant” Golden Globe exuberance or Janet Jackson’s PR miscalculation doesn’t require a full-scale federal investigation or a radical reassessment of indecency regs.

If the culture warriors aren’t careful, they’ll provide broadcasters with another incentive to abandon their affiliates and take their programming to cable.

And I might just have to vote for Dr. Dean.

Josef Adalian is a television editor of Daily Variety.

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