- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Federal Communications Commission will review the thousands of e-mail messages and telephone calls it has received about the sexually suggestive sketch that opened this week’s edition of ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” but staffers at the agency and industry observers said the segment probably will not be deemed indecent.

FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell yesterday criticized the network for airing the sketch in the wake of Janet Jackson’s notorious performance during the Feb. 1 Super Bowl halftime show, which sparked a national debate about indecency on the airwaves and triggered fines against TV and radio stations.

But critics said that, while the “Monday Night Football” segment was inappropriate, it probably didn’t violate the government’s standards against broadcasting material it deems indecent.

“I don’t think it meets the definition of indecency. I do think it meets the definition of stupidity,” said Howard M. Liberman, a communications lawyer in Washington who formerly worked for the FCC as a staff attorney.

In the sketch, Nicolette Sheridan plays Edie Britt, her character from ABC’s hit series “Desperate Housewives.” Dressed only in a towel, the vampy suburbanite attempts to seduce Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens in a locker room.

When Owens resists her advances, saying he has a game to play, she tells him, “Oh, you and your little games. … I’ve got a game we can play.”

She drops her towel, but is seen only from the back and the waist up.

The team will have to win one without him, Owens responds.

ABC apologized for the broadcast Tuesday. In an interview on the CNBC cable channel yesterday, Mr. Powell criticized ABC and corporate parent Walt Disney Co.

“I wonder if Walt Disney would be proud,” Mr. Powell said.

“It would seem to me that while we get a lot of broadcasting companies complaining about indecency enforcement, they seem to be continuing to be willing to keep the issue at the forefront, keep it hot and steamy in order to get financial gains and the free advertising it provides.”

A spokeswoman said the FCC has received “thousands” of e-mails and phone calls about the broadcast, but she said the agency has not sorted through the messages to determine how many are complaints.

The FCC will review the comments and decide whether to open an investigation that could result in a fine against the network. The maximum indecency fine is $32,500 per incident.

Under FCC rules, over-the-air television and radio stations cannot broadcast material involving sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children might tune in.

The “Monday Night Football” sketch aired at 9 p.m. Mr. Liberman said the encounter between Miss Sheridan and player Owens was suggestive but not explicit because, while Miss Sheridan disrobed, Owens did not.

Privately, FCC staffers said the segment probably did not rise to the government’s level of indecency. One person said the sketch was not unlike scenes that have aired on some soap operas and situation comedies.

The Parents Television Council — a conservative watchdog group — is not pushing its members to to complain about the “Monday Night Football” incident.

If the council made a big deal about the segment only to have the FCC rule that the segment wasn’t indecent, it could backfire against the movement to clean up the airwaves, said Tim Winter, the group’s executive director.

“We don’t want to give the FCC some sort of license to say this is OK,” he said. While the incident does not rise to the level of indecency, it “does rise to the level of corporate responsibility,” he added.

Spokesmen for ABC and the Philadelphia Eagles declined comment.

National Football League spokesman Brian McCarthy said ABC and the team conceived the sketch together.

The corporate NFL did not have any input in the matter, he said.

“The first time we saw the completed episode was Monday night at 9 o’clock,” Mr. McCarthy said.

The brouhaha has erupted less than a week after several ABC affiliates across the nation pre-empted the network’s third airing of the war film “Saving Private Ryan” because they feared the coarse language in the movie would make them vulnerable to FCC fines.

During the Super Bowl halftime show, singer Justin Timberlake ripped off part of Miss Jackson’s outfit, briefly exposing her right breast to a TV audience of some 90 million people.

CBS is protesting a proposed FCC fine of $550,000 for the show.

CAPTION:

ABC’s “Monday Night Football” sketch involved actress Nicolette Sheridan, who plays Edie Britt in the series “Desperate Housewives,” dropping her towel in an attempt to seduce Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens. The sketch is being criticized for being inappropriate, though some critics say it probably does not violate the Federal Communications Commission’s indecency standards.

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