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Dropped-Towel Skit Earns Scolding but No Penalty for ABC

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, March 15, 2005

"Desperate Housewives" actress Nicollette Sheridan did not violate decency standards when she exposed her back in a skit that opened a "Monday Night Football" broadcast, the Federal Communications Commission announced yesterday.

Even so, FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps couldn't resist the urge to spank Sheridan and "MNF" broadcaster ABC, in a separate statement.

The Nov. 15, 2004, segment before the Philadelphia Eagles-Dallas Cowboys game sparked many complaints to the FCC, which yesterday unanimously decided that it did not violate the law.

The skit, "although sexually suggestive, is not graphic or explicit," the FCC wrote -- with some sadness, we think -- in its announcement denying the complaints.

The segment also involved Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens, who "is fully dressed . . . and, with the exception of a moment when her bare back is exposed to the audience, Sheridan is at all times fully covered with a towel," the FCC wrote. "No sexual or excretory organs are shown or described, and no sexual activities are explicitly depicted or described. Furthermore, the scene where Sheridan drops her towel and jumps into Owens's arms is brief."

And, the FCC continued, "[a]lthough the scene apparently is intended to be titillating, it simply is not graphic or explicit enough to be indecent under our standard."

For those of you who missed ABC's promotional skit, which aired during the November ratings sweeps, Owens is fully suited for the game and in the locker room when Sheridan appears, as serial seductress Edie Britt, "Desperate Housewives' " most desperate character. Wearing only a towel, she apparently has just taken a shower and explains that her house recently burned down, as it did in the pilot episode of the hit series.

We could tell you what happened next but, really, the FCC's explanation is a much better read:

Sheridan, wearing only a towel, seeks to seduce Owens.

After he rebuffs her advances, telling her the game is about to start and his team needs him, she drops her towel.

(Here's where children should stop reading.)

The camera shows her from the back, nude from the waist up. The viewer cannot see her body below the waist.

He responds: "Aw, hell, the team's going to have to win without me" and then she leaps into his arms.

Yes, ABC, owned by the Walt Disney Co., broadcast a woman's naked back. At 9 p.m. Eastern Time, 8 p.m. Central Time. When millions of parents have plunked their kids down in front of the set thinking their babes are only going to see men pounding each other, beer commercials and Viagra ads.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell made an early ruling on the broadcast in a Nov. 17 interview on CNBC, owned by ABC competitor NBC.

Calling the segment "very disappointing," Powell said, "I wonder if Walt Disney would be proud." He added that while broadcasters complain about the FCC's "indecency enforcement," they like to "keep it hot and steamy in order to get financial gains and the free advertising it provides."

Powell is leaving the FCC this week; he's heading to the Aspen Institute to advise on communications matters.

In his statement, Commissioner Copps complained that while the broadcast technically was not indecent, "it does raise the issue of broadcasters acting responsibly when deciding what to air during the hours when children are likely to be in the audience."

He wrote: "There wasn't much self-discipline in this particular promotion. As stewards of the public airwaves, broadcasters can and should do better."

Yesterday's FCC ruling will no doubt tickle Chuck Lorre, co-creator of CBS's "Two and a Half Men." He posted a one-second so-called "vanity card" at the end of a recent episode, grousing that the network made him cut down a scene in which Lucy Lawless's naked back was seen.

"My problem is knowing that I work in an industry, or perhaps I should say a culture, that is more comfortable showing a dead naked body than a live one," Lorre wrote on the card, which flashed by at the very end of the March 7 broadcast.

"A glimpse at any of the prime-time police procedural shows reveals that the powers that be, both in Hollywood and Washington, are perfectly at ease with graphically detailed autopsy scenes that show female corpses being carved up in order to reveal the titillating (pun intended) cause of death, or, if it's during sweeps, examined for traces of semen."

"American Idol" just isn't "American Idol" until one of the finalists abruptly vanishes from the competition. So it was with some relief that we read Fox's announcement that Mario Vazquez abruptly pulled out of the singing derby, citing "personal reasons."

Better Vazquez of the Annoying Hats, we thought, than somebody really talented, like Anwar Robinson or . . . nope, that's pretty much it.

Yesterday, Vazquez told the syndicated celebrity suck-up show "Extra" that his reason for leaving is "a very private issue amongst myself" and that "my intuition told me there was things I really needed to take care of, personal areas in my life that I'm trying to keep private."

He added, "This is not the last you've heard of Mario Vazquez!"

Actually, pookie, it probably is. After all, the general public doesn't hear a lot these days about Corey Clark, who made it through to the finals in a previous edition but vanished from the competition after allegations became public that he had assaulted his sister. Ditto Jaered Andrews, who left after being charged with assault in connection with a bar fight. And you don't read much about Frenchie Davis, who got sacked because she had appeared on a porn Web site. Not to mention, 'cause nobody does anymore, Donnie Williams, who was axed from the show after an arrest on suspicion of DUI.

Fox has brought back contestant Nikko Smith to take Vazquez's place. Smith and Travis Tucker were eliminated because they were the bottom two vote-getters among the male contestants last week; Fox says Smith got more viewer votes than Tucker.

Mario Vazquez, at right in the back row, has pulled out of the "American Idol" competition, citing "personal reasons."

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