The emperor's new shows

For Rupert Murdoch, being a media mogul means never having to say you're sorry.

Published February 24, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Absent from much of the outcry over the late, meteoric television phenomenon, "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" was any discussion of the show's ultimate patron: Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch, who owns Fox TV, didn't create, produce or even green-light the show, and in that sense he was no more responsible for its airing than I am for getting my sewage to the treatment plant. But this is a man who once said, "The buck stops with the guy who signs the checks," so responsibility can fairly be allocated to him.

We're not talking about screening the bachelor candidates here. As everyone knows by now, Rick Rockwell was not everything he was cracked up to be. His millions consist of two (most tied up in real estate); his stand-up comedy career was defined by his telling jokes for 30 hours to get into the Guinness Book of World Records; and his most notable exercise in motivational speaking was in convincing the folks at Fox to let him on the show.

And then there was that business about the restraining order ...

But even before Mr. Right was revealed to be a wrong number, there were some serious moral questions raised about the show. Though most outrage was couched in feminist, marriage-as-prostitution terms, the values the show challenged were as much of the marriage-as-a-sacred institution sort. You know, old-fashioned family values -- the kind that Murdoch's publications like the Weekly Standard and the New York Post so often champion.

"It's puzzling, at times, for us social conservatives who work for Mr. Murdoch to see the kind of material Fox airs," confesses New York Post columnist Rod Dreher (last seen giving Salon hell over the Dan Savage affair). "That 'Marry a Millionaire' show was repulsive. That said, I am grateful beyond all telling to Mr. Murdoch for keeping the Post alive to be a lone conservative voice of sanity in the liberal wilderness of New York City journalism."

I asked Post columnist John Podhoretz for his thoughts and he demurred, saying he was writing a column on the subject himself -- for the Weekly Standard. It is doubtful that Podhoretz will have much good to say about one of the uglier episodes in network TV's bottom-feeding season. That may be the ultimate privilege of having a media empire like Murdoch's: You can make money on bad TV in one part of your empire and make money off pundits criticizing it in another part.

The conservatives' problems with Murdoch aren't exactly new, as indicated by the Web page titled Ten Reasons Why Rupert Murdoch is Not Really a Conservative (chief among the reasons: his willingness to do business with communist governments and his youthful enthusiasm for the teachings of Karl Marx). Fox programming has been giving folks fits since the network expanded to seven days of programming in 1992. Does anyone remember the Fox affiliate program "Studs," a dating show with stripping males? How about "Woops!" a short-lived sitcom about a group of castaways who survived an accidental nuclear holocaust?

"We used to have a rule around here," former Fox president Jamie Kellner told me in an interview then. "If it would work on one of the other networks, we don't want it."

Now, of course, the other networks can return the compliment in full. For while Fox has enjoyed some amazing successes, it has launched 20 duds for every "Simpsons," and the current season has been particularly devastating. With the sole exception of the breakout sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle," the network's offerings have been tanking like the Lusitania.

Enter "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" -- the next logical step in the road that started with ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." This sort of one-upmanship is classic Fox programming; some who have worked with him say it is vintage Murdoch as well.

"Murdoch presents a dilemma for everyone he comes into contact with," according to Burt Kearns, author of "Tabloid Baby" and producer of last year's "When Good Pets Go Bad II" (the last "reality-based" show Fox did before it swore to take the high road). "He is an aristocrat as well as a so-called man of the people. Fox doesn't so much reflect conservative values as play to conservative instincts and lampoon them; it puts those values in your face. It's one thing to get rich by answering questions on a game show. Murdoch shows just how low you can go."

According to one Fox insider who asked to remain anonymous, the network is in real conflict over what to do -- and not do -- to reach an audience. "They couldn't do reality because of the promises they had made," he says, but they needed ratings. "This was a good idea, or so they thought. I don't think a soul on earth thought it was going to do the ratings it delivered. We all thought it was a one-shot in the February sweeps, and see you later."

Now it seems the only person who will be saying sayonara is Doug Herzog, the former head of programming for Comedy Central (the station that brought us "South Park"). He was brought in to bring life to Fox but seems to be going the way of all Fox programming chiefs.

Conservatives who value Murdoch's contributions to the cause still have hope. Most are heartened by the increasingly viable Fox News Channel, which has done a competitive job of covering the primaries, and are ardent fans of the Post and the Standard. And they don't begrudge him success with his entertainment programming -- but they keep waiting for the leopard to change his spots.

"I kind of thought for a while that in order to get Fox on the map he had to cut some corners and hold his nose," says Robert Peters of the conservative watchdog group Morality in Media. "But I thought once Fox got established, Murdoch would begin to make the network different, positively different. And in 15 years it's gone from bad to worse."

Even without the revelations about Rockwell, "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" might not have remained successful. Too many viewers compared it to watching a car wreck; guilt would have caught up with those watching. More important, according to the Fox executive I spoke to, "While these shows are big ratings-getters, they are not revenue producers at all. Advertisers have better standards than the networks they advertise on, and for the most part will not run their commercials in 'When Animals Attack' or the police chase shows or 'Cops' for that matter."

If only Fox could find a way to get its eyeballs and still respect itself in the morning. As it is, Murdoch's network resembles an alcoholic in the last throes of his disease. He quits, and swears never to drink again. A few months go by and the feeling just isn't right ("How come no one's paying any attention to me?"). So he goes back to the bottle -- in this case one labeled "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" And in the morning he hates himself all over again.

Ultimately, Murdoch -- himself recently divorced and remarried (who wants to marry a multi-billionaire?) -- is like the Starkist company in its relationship to Charlie the Tuna. He doesn't care about good taste; he wants shows that taste good. Even if they leave a funny taste in your mouth afterward. Those conservatives who thought he was going to provide some wholesome family fare as an alternative to that secular, sensationalistic junk on the Big Three should remember that this was the man who published "The Hitler Diaries." And when they proved to be false his attitude was: "Sold a lot of papers, didn't they?"

"With the push toward abortion and euthanasia, why shouldn't two adults be able to sign a contract to fight to the death?" Peters of Morality in Media asks rhetorically. "One guy walks away with a million and they carry the other guy out and throw him in a grave. Somebody's going to arrange this; somebody's got to come up with a million bucks. What a ratings grabber! We're back to Rome."

And Fox is taking you there.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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