The segment that aired last November showed Sheridan in a locker room wearing only a towel and provocatively asking the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver to skip the game for her. She then dropped the towel and leaped into Owens' arms.
Only the upper back of the "Desperate Housewives" star was exposed and no foul language was used — in fact, the scene was no racier than what's routinely seen on soap operas. But ABC said it received complaints from viewers who thought it was inappropriate.
The network, Owens and Eagles all apologized. The Federal Communications Commission opened an investigation after receiving many complaints. But the five-member panel unanimously ruled the segment did not violate federal indecency standards.
"Although the scene apparently is intended to be titillating, it simply is not graphic or explicit enough to be indecent under our standard," the commission said.
While agreeing with the decision, Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps criticized ABC for airing the segment at a time — 9 p.m. EST — when many children were watching.
"There wasn't much self-discipline in this particular promotion," he said. "As stewards of the airwaves, broadcasters can and should do better."
Federal law bars nonsatellite radio stations and noncable television channels from airing certain references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely be tuning in.
While the federal indecency statute has been on the books for many years, the FCC has considerably boosted enforcement in the last 18 months. The watershed event came in February 2004 when Janet Jackson's right breast was briefly exposed during the Super Bowl halftime show.
The FCC wound up proposing a $550,000 fine against CBS, which broadcast the Super Bowl. The network is appealing. After the Jackson incident, some networks began using a broadcast delay on live programs to catch any offensive material before it aired.
Congress is considering dramatically boosting fines for indecency. The House last month overwhelmingly passed a bill to raise the maximum fine from $32,500 to $500,000. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate but has not had a hearing.