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(Reuters) - Quarterback Eli Manning and his New York Giants may have beaten superstar Tom Brady and the New England Patriots at Sunday's Super Bowl, but none them could outmuscle Madonna -- at least, where TV audiences were concerned.
A record 111.3 million U.S. viewers watched the Giants defeat the Patriots in the professional football championship, but 114 million watched the halftime performance by Madonna that drew mostly mixed reviews and a firestorm of controversy over a rude gesture by rapper M.I.A.
Ratings tracker Nielsen on Monday said the Super Bowl on the NBC network was the most-watched TV program in U.S. history, eclipsing the 111.0 million who watched 2011's game. An extra three million tuned in for Madonna's glitzy, Cleopatra-themed performance, giving the Material Girl the distinction of having the most-watched Super Bowl halftime show ever.
But her honor may always have the description "dubious" attached to it after NBC and the NFL were forced to publicly apologize for a finger gesture flipped at the audience by British rapper M.I.A, who joined Madonna in the performance that viewers seemed to love and hate in equal measure.
Singer Sean "P.Diddy" Combs tweeted that Madonna "had the best Half-time performance of all time !!" Allison Stewart, pop music blogger with the Washington Post, said Madonna "delivered the most excellent and unexpectedly subversive Super Bowl halftime show in years."
But the Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik called it a "joke of a halftime show featuring an embalmed version of Madonna snatched off the undertaker's table."
Other critics took her to task for blatantly promoting her new album, due out in March, and upcoming tour. The Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot commented that the Super Bowl "has become the biggest stage for shills of all kinds, pop stars included, and halftime has turned into a 12-minute branding opportunity in recent years for artists brandishing new albums."
Much of the day-after reckoning focused on rapper M.I.A.'s offensive finger, which drew comparisons to Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" in 2004.
M.I.A. joined Madonna on stage with U.S. hip-hop star Nicki Minaj to sing "Give Me All Your Luvin'" from Madonna's latest album, when M.I.A. extended her middle finger in a fleeting, obscene gesture while facing the camera.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy blamed a failure in NBC's delay system which is intended to prevent such incidents making their way to national TV screens. "The gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate, very disappointing, and we apologize to our fans," he said.
NBC sports spokesman Christopher McCloskey shifted more of the blame back to the NFL, saying, "The NFL hired the talent and produced the halftime show. Our system was late to obscure the inappropriate gesture and we apologize to our viewers."
Madonna was the first female Super Bowl halftime headliner since Jackson in 2004. That show caused an uproar when Justin Timberlake tugged at her costume, exposing her nipple to millions of TV viewers in what Jackson called a "wardrobe malfunction."
Activist group, the Parents Television Council on Monday blamed both the NFL and NBC for M.I.A.'s actions saying they "chose a lineup full of performers who have based their careers on shock, profanity and titillation."
"The network cannot say it was caught off guard. It has been eight years since the Janet Jackson striptease, and both NBC and the NFL knew full well what might happen," the PTC said.
The first Super Bowl in 1967 featured college marching bands entertaining the crowds at halftime. But recent performers have included major stars like Paul McCartney, U2, Prince, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and The Black Eyed Peas.
The Federal Communications Commission had no comment on the Super Bowl incident.
Sam Feder, a partner at Jenner & Block LLP and former FCC general counsel, told Reuters he expected the FCC would be very cautious in how it moves forward if formal complaints are filed. While he saw parallels to the 2004 "wardrobe malfunction" with Janet Jackson, he said it was less likely the FCC would take action here as the whole indecency regime is under scrutiny in the courts.
Major television networks have used free speech rights to challenge the FCC's indecency policy. Arguments before the Supreme Court began last month.
The FCC would not comment on whether formal complaints over M.I.A.'s actions had been filed.
Medley Global Advisors analyst Jeffrey Silva said any action if and when complaints come in would be stalled until after the Supreme Court rules on the government's power to regulate profanity and nudity on broadcast television.
"It's just been an area ripe with ambiguities," Silva said of the indecency rules. "The incident during halftime is just going to add to it. The controlling factor right now is the Supreme Court."
The Supreme Court case is FCC v. Fox Television Stations and FCC v. ABC Inc, No. 10-1293.
Reporting by Christine Kearney and Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Jill Serjeant, Bob Tourtellotte and Bernard Orr