Signature Significance at ABC
Bill James, the baseball analyst whose perceptive observations have transformed the way everyone looks at the American Pastime, and who has played a significant if undisclosed role in the Boston Red Sox World Championship, devised the useful concept of “signature significance.” Briefly, he uses the term to describe single occurrences that nonetheless tell us a great deal about the person or organization responsible for them. In baseball, there are excellent pitching performances that by all themselves prove that the pitchers who authored them were superb pitchers; mediocre pitchers literally never pitch games that good. And in the realm of television, there is material so undeniably wrong-headed and tasteless that we can safely say that no responsible network would allow such a thing to be broadcast even once.
Thus we can safely conclude that despite all evidence over the past year that large numbers of Americans do not want gratuitous sex, smuttiness, or Janet Jackson’s breast ambushing them or their children when they gather to watch purer fare, the folks at the “Alphabet Network” don’t understand what those Americans are talking about, and couldn’t care less. ABC decided to begin Monday Night Football with a lame skit showing one of the suburban bimbos (Nicolette Sheridan) from its hit “Desperate Housewives” attempting to complete a locker room pass at Philadelphia Eagles star Terrell Owens while wearing nothing but a towel, and later not even that. This was broadcast at 9 PM Eastern, 6 PM Pacific Standard Time, when lots of 10,11 and 12 year olds were presumably watching, and not expecting to see the luscious Ms. Sheridan (Did you know she was “Mama” Michelle Phillips’ daughter? Boy, do I feel old ) nakedly leaping into the eager arms of a wide-receiver.
The usual occurred, of course: uproar, public complaints, and the required touching apology from ABC. Don’t believe it for a second. If anyone at the network suggested that the stunt was, uh, tasteless and assaultive, he or she was surely told to butt out. This was an attempt to generate buzz for the new “Peyton Place,’ and glean a little bit of publicity for the struggling. “Monday Night Football” franchise. They calculated, undoubtedly correctly, that more good will would be created among the group’s core audience of 20 t0 35 year-old single male beer-swilling NFL fans who are still mourning the demise of the Swedish Bikini Team than complaints from recovering Hooter’s patrons who have graduated to parenthood. And they knew that their little testosterone passion play wasn’t steamy enough to warrant a fine from the FCC. It worked brilliantly, in other words.
ABC, by the way, is owned by Disney. That whirring sound you hear is Uncle Walt doing 360s in his grave. The crassness and lack of respect and consideration for its viewers’ sensibilities by the network represents a breach of trust, and one that should be remembered. No, it’s not world-shaking and yes, Paul Begala, there are more important problems out there. But this has signature significance: this network has now joined Fox and CBS in proving that its “values” consist of doing anything for ratings that won’t shock Whoopi Goldberg, and there is reason to suspect that NBC is no different. In the old days, back when Nicolette’s mother and Denny, Papa John and Cass Elliot were singing “Monday, Monday,” the networks brass used to talk about being invited guests in the homes of America. Well, when invited guests in my home show blatant disrespect for my family, I ask them to leave.
And they don’t get invited back. Once is enough.
And one more thing If there was anything encouraging about the promotion, it was the fact that the very white Ms. Sheridan was romantically paired with the very black Mr. Owens and nobody cared. Think about it less than thirty years ago, Captain Kirk kissed Uhura on Star Trek and it was considered a landmark violation of a societal taboo. Thus do prejudices and ignorance perish. But some critics from the African-American victimology school have actually accused ABC of playing to racial stereotypes, and are offended about that. Please. If it was a white wide-receiver in the spot, these same critics would be calling foul because Owens is the undisputed star of the ascendant Eagles, and they would cite his exclusion from the skin-fest with a buxom blonde as evidence of racism. There are plenty of things about the Monday Night Football promotion to complain about, but this isn’t one of them.