• FCC Responds To Complaints Of Foul Play By Desperate Housewife On Monday Night Football
  • December 17, 2004
  • Law Firm: Reed Smith LLP - Pittsburgh Office
  • Current public sentiment regarding broadcast decency standards has moved to the advertising arena. The Federal Communications Commission is examining complaints concerning a television promo run by ABC before "Monday Night Football," in which actress Nicollette Sheridan, who plays a character on the hit series "Desperate Housewives," threw in the towel.

    The scene at issue was shot from behind, displaying Sheridan's bare back after she dropped the towel she was wearing and leapt into the arms of Philadelphia receiver, Terrell Owens.

    After some public outcry, the National Football League -- still stinging from the Janet Jackson wardrobe "malfunction" during last season's Super Bowl halftime show -- conveniently announced it was outraged by the promo. CBS was fined $500,000 for the Super Bowl incident, in which Jackson revealed her breast. Will ABC now face a similar fine?

    ABC immediately apologized for the "Desperate Housewives" promo. "We have heard from many of our viewers about last night's opening segment and we agree that the placement was inappropriate," read a network statement.

    Neither Mr. Owens nor Ms. Sheridan publicly commented on the incident. However, the Eagles released a statement noting that "[i]t is normal for teams to cooperate with ABC in the development of an opening for its broadcast. After seeing the final piece, we wish it hadn't aired."

    The FCC stated it received as many as 50,000 complaints about the spot, but could not confirm how many of those were duplicates, according to media reports. An agency spokesperson who declined to be named told reporters the agency will respond to the complaints.

    In an earlier indecency challenge, the FCC cited 159 public complaints concerning the Fox program, "Married by America." A journalist who examined the actual complaints concluded the agency received only 90 complaints, written by 23 individuals, and all but two were identical repetitions of a form letter posted by the Parents Television Counsel -- bringing the number of discrete complaints to a total of three.

    The NFL seeks to promote its games as family entertainment. Yet fewer children watch "Monday Night Football" than "Desperate Housewives." The latter is the number one rated new television program and the fifth most-watched show among viewers between the ages of 12 and 17. "Monday Night Football" ranks 18 among viewers of that age group. More children in the age bracket of 2 to 11 watch "Desperate Housewives" than "Monday Night Football" as well.

    Why This Matters: The FCC defines broadcast indecency as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community broadcast standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities." The division between those who believe programming often is inappropriate for a general audience that includes children and those who believe controversial content is legitimate public faire and protected speech, creates a chilling effect on content, giving the network censors fits over suggestive content, including creative in commercials. The FCC's increasing willingness to levy fines against broadcasters may result in edgy programming -- and advertising -- being rejected by broadcast outlets.