WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators ruled yesterday that there was nothing indecent about a steamy introductory segment to ABC's ''Monday Night Football" featuring actress Nicollette Sheridan jumping into the arms of football player Terrell Owens.
The segment that aired in 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's arms.
Only the upper back of the ''Desperate Housewives" star was exposed, and no foul language was used, but ABC said it received complaints from viewers who thought it was inappropriate.
The network, Owens, and the Eagles all apologized. The Federal Communications Commission opened an investigation after receiving several complaints. But the five-member panel unanimously ruled that 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, Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, criticized ABC for airing the segment at a time, 9 p.m., 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 to be tuning in.
The federal indecency statute has been on the books for many years, but the FCC has considerably boosted enforcement in the past 18 months. The watershed event occurred in February 2004 when Janet Jackson's right breast was exposed briefly during the Super Bowl halftime show.
The FCC proposed a $550,000 fine against CBS, which had broadcast the Super Bowl. The network is appealing. After the Jackson incident, some networks began using a broadcast delay on live programs to catch offensive material before it aired.
Congress is considering a dramatic boost in 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.