Our 'desperate' TV times

Once again, my indifference to television paid off big time, because I wasn't watching "Monday Night Football" on Nov. 15, and thus avoided direct involvement with a controversial segment that aired just prior to the Philadelphia-Dallas game.

Because of numerous viewer complaints, ABC has apologized for the strange interlude, which was intended to provide a publicity boost for "Desperate Housewives," a new ABC series that has become a sudden ratings hit. In the TV biz, using a sports telecast to boost a prime time series is known as "cross promotion."

The attempt to grab new viewers from the Monday night audience featured Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens suiting up in a locker room and being confronted by "Housewives" cast member Nicollette Sheridan, who was draped only in a towel. In the news accounts I read, the segment was described as "steamy," and Ms. Sheridan "provocatively asked Owens to skip the game for her." Then she dropped the towel and the two of them embraced. The report also said Sheridan "was shown only from behind and above the waist" after she dropped the towel.

As the old saying goes, do whatever you want, just keep it behind closed doors and not out in the open where it can frighten the livestock. I'm sure the people responsible for producing the "Housewives" promo thought they were performing yeoman work. I can hear them in the planning meetings, tossing around the usual hip terms like "edgy" and "pushing the envelope." I wouldn't be surprised if someone suggested having Nicollette Sheridan join the "Monday Night" broadcast team, and show her wearing a towel on the sidelines while conducting provocative real-time interviews.

I probably shouldn't even be discussing this incident, because I'm now guilty of giving additional publicity to ABC and "Desperate Housewives," which was probably part of their whole marketing conspiracy to begin with. But just in case anyone at the network is listening, here is my advice: Life is not a giant kegger, poker party, or street carnival.

Yes, I know you people are fixated on the 18-to-49 age group, and those of us on the back end are demographically insignificant to your advertisers. But we are the first generation that grew up watching TV, and our envelopes of good taste and acceptable behavior have been pretty well stretched over the past few decades. We've seen it all when it comes to sexual innuendo: "Petticoat Junction," "Charlie's Angels," "Dallas," "Married... with Children," "Ally McBeal," and the spin-offs and imitators they've spawned.

At this stage in my life, draping women in towels on TV is not even worth getting outraged about. I live in a household full of women, and when one of them shows up next to me in a towel it usually means a drain is clogged, and that situation is definitely not provocative or tantalizing.

And for the production crew at "Monday Night Football," I advise you all to keep one question in mind when the prime time executives come in with their next wonky idea for some cross-promotion: What would Howard Cosell do?

Jeffrey Shaffer is an author and essayist who writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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