So what got people more bent out of shape, the actual broadcast of T.O. & Nicolette Sheridan in (and out) of a towel, or the constant reminders that said footage was supposedly offensive? The New York Times’ Frank Rich thinks it over.
Though seen nationwide, and as early as 6 p.m. on the West Coast, the spot initially caused so little stir that the next morning only two newspapers in the country, both in Philadelphia, reported on it. ABC’s switchboards were not swamped by shocked viewers on Monday night. A spokesman for ABC Sports told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he hadn’t received a single phone call or e-mail in the immediate aftermath of the broadcast.
Even the stunned Rush Limbaugh, curiously enough, didn’t get around to mounting his own diatribe until Wednesday. Mr. Owens’s agent, David Joseph, says that the flood of complaints at his office and Mr. Owens’s Web site also didn’t start until more than 24 hours after the incident – late Tuesday and early Wednesday. Were any of these complainants actual victims (or even viewers) of “Monday Night Football” or were they just a mob assembled after the fact by “family” groups, emboldened by their triumph in smiting “Saving Private Ryan” from 66 ABC stations the week before? Though the F.C.C. said on Wednesday that it had received 50,000 complaints about the N.F.L. affair, it couldn’t determine how many of them were duplicates – the kind generated by e-mail campaigns run by political organizations posting form letters ready to be clicked into cyberspace ad infinitum by anyone who has an index finger and two seconds of idle time.
Like the Janet Jackson video before it, the new N.F.L. sex tape was now being rebroadcast around the clock so we could revel incessantly in the shock of it all. “People were so outraged they had to see it 10 times,” joked Aaron Brown of CNN, which was no slacker in filling that need in the marketplace. And yet when I spoke to an F.C.C. enforcement spokesman after more than two days of such replays, the agency had not yet received a single complaint about the spot’s constant recycling on other TV shows, among them the highly rated talk show “The View,” where Ms. Sheridan’s bare back had been merrily paraded at the child-friendly hour of 11 a.m.
The hypocrisy embedded in this tale is becoming a national running gag. As in the Super Bowl brouhaha, in which the N.F.L. maintained it had no idea that MTV might produce a racy halftime show, the league has denied any prior inkling of the salaciousness on tap this time – even though the spot featured the actress playing the sluttiest character in prime time’s most libidinous series and was shot with the full permission of one of the league’s teams in its own locker room. Again as in the Jackson case, we are also asked to believe that pro football is what Pat Buchanan calls “the family entertainment, the family sports show” rather than what it actually is: a Boschian jamboree of bumping-and-grinding cheerleaders, erectile-dysfunction pageantry and, as Don Imus puts it, “wife-beating drug addicts slamming the hell out of each other” on the field.
“Desperate Housewives” is hardly a blue-state phenomenon. A hit everywhere, it is even a bigger hit in Oklahoma City than it is in Los Angeles, bigger in Kansas City than it is in New York. All those public moralists who wail about all the kids watching Ms. Sheridan on “Monday Night Football” would probably have apoplexy if they actually watched what Ms. Sheridan was up to in her own series – and then looked closely at its Nielsen numbers. Though children ages 2 to 11 make up a small percentage of the audience of either show, there are actually more in that age group tuning into Mr. Cherry’s marital brawls (870,000) than into the N.F.L.’s fisticuffs (540,000). “Desperate Housewives” also ranks No. 5 among all prime-time shows for ages 12-17. (“Monday Night Football” is No. 18.) This may explain in part why its current advertisers include products like Fisher-Price toys, the DVD of “Elf” and the forthcoming Tim Allen holiday vehicle, “Christmas With the Kranks.”