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‘MNF’ Next Indecency Target

Nov 22, 2004  •  Post A Comment

A controversial ABC TV Network promo for “Desperate Housewives” that appeared on the network’s “Monday Night Football” last week has generated more than 50,000 complaints at the Federal Communications Commission, sparking yet another agency indecency review.

As of late last week the FCC was declining comment on whether the promo-which showed “Desperate Housewives” star Nicolette Sheridan dropping a towel and leaping into the arms of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens in a locker room-ran afoul of any agency regulations prohibiting off-color broadcasts.

“When we receive complaints, we review them looking at our regulations and case law to see if there’s a possible violation of our rules,” an FCC spokesperson said.

Though the broadcast showed Ms. Sheridan naked only from behind, the display elicited widespread condemnation, at least in part because of its unexpected context. ABC promptly apologized for the incident.

“We have heard from many of our viewers about last night’s MNF opening segment and we agree that the placement was inappropriate,” said ABC Sports in a statement. “We apologize.”

Broadcast indecency has been a particularly sensitive issue at the FCC and in Congress since Janet Jackson exposed her breast during CBS’s coverage of the Super Bowl halftime show earlier this year-an act the FCC punished with a $550,000 fine.

ABC, a division of The Walt Disney Co., is also under scrutiny by the FCC over its Nov. 11 Veterans Day broadcast of “Saving Private Ryan,” which included numerous four-letter words and a considerable amount of violence. In that case, ABC stood by its decision to air the Oscar-winning movie, which was shown uncut in 2001 and 2002 without incident. The showing also brought letters of complaint to the FCC, some of them orchestrated by lobbying groups and religious organizations.

With the FCC now taking a much more activist approach to broadcast indecency, the showing of “Private Ryan” this time is expected to be reviewed by the agency.

Networks have complained that it is difficult to know just what the FCC will find indecent these days. The agency refuses to provide any advance guidelines, saying that would be a form of censorship.

Another controversial decision was a fine issued by the FCC to Fox Broadcasting for the show “Married by America.” In that case, the FCC said suggestions of sex on the show were blatant. That case appears to be a forerunner to the complaints about the promo for “Desperate Housewives,” a series that has been a big hit this season for ABC.

Politicians have been quick to get on the indecency bandwagon as the incidents have piled up.

“Disgraceful performance,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., of the ABC promo, during congressional hearings.

The FCC did not give information about the sources or forms of the “MNF” complaints.

A spokesperson for the watchdog Parents Television Council, which has been leading the Washington charge for an indecency crackdown, said that organization had not urged its almost 1 million members to complain about the promo, on grounds that Ms. Sheridan’s performance had not risen to the level of an indecency violation.

But in a statement, Tim Winter, PTC executive director, accused ABC of gross irresponsibility.

“It is yet another symptom of television network arrogance, piping sexual content into America’s living rooms at a time when millions of children are watching,” Mr. Winter said. “Half-hearted apologies are not enough. TV network executives refuse to shoulder any accountability for the graphic and gratuitous material they broadcast on a nightly basis. And now, apparently, a football game is fair game for their raunch. Families across our nation are sick and tired of this wanton, reckless behavior.”

Yet to Be Determined

In an interview on CNBC last week, FCC Chairman Michael Powell also said that as a legal matter, whether the broadcast ran afoul of agency indecency prohibitions has yet to be determined and that he couldn’t offer an opinion on whether it violated the law.

“But I think it’s just sort of very disappointing,” Mr. Powell said. “I wonder if Walt Disney would be proud. It would seem to me that while we get a lot of broadcasting companies complaining about indecency enforcement, they seem to continuing to be willing to keep the issue at the forefront, keep it hot and steamy, in order to get financial gain from the free advertising it provides.”

Those remarks elicited a sharp rebuke from Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who said Mr. Powell should recuse himself from any indecency enforcement on the promo for pre-judging the issue.

“This is no different from a judge announcing before a hearing that `We need to examine the facts that will be presented in this case fairly, but if you ask me, I think this guy is guilty.”‘

“Chairman Powell has essentially announced his opinion before a fair and proper examination could be held,” Rep. Nadler said. “He cannot be a fair and impartial judge if a complaint is filed.”

A spokesman for Mr. Powell declined comment.