The triumph of the lowest of the low

Television: The runaway success of `Millionaire' is leading to more and more `reality' shows. Network executives say they can't stop themselves.

February 18, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Brace yourself, more is on the way.

While industry analysts say that network programmers crossed a line this week with Fox's "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" network executives say they can't stop.

The cheap cost, big buzz and relatively high ratings that such "reality" programs generate are like a narcotic, impossible to resist, they say.

The network addiction started with the massive success of ABC's game show "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" and followed with a seeming flood of knockoffs now on the air.

The flood became a tidal wave this week with "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire" -- a two-hour program featuring would-be brides competing to be chosen as the wife of a mystery tycoon seated in the shadows on stage. It was such a hit -- its audience peaked at 21 million -- that Fox announced yesterday it would replay the show next Tuesday, and it plans another version with a female millionaire selecting a spouse.

"I knew it was going to kill [in the ratings]," Paul McGuire, vice president at UPN (United Paramount Network), said in a phone interview yesterday. "That concept, that title -- it was a great move by Fox. Will there be more? Sure there will. It works, and it's cheap, too.

"The two biggest TV success stories this year are `Millionaire' on ABC and `WWF Smackdown!' on our network," said McGuire, who characterized such reality-based programming as "part of the populist theme pervading network TV" this year.

Garth Ancier, the president of NBC, which has not yet found its "reality" hit, has had a slightly less flattering description for the reality trend.

"It's like crack cocaine," Ancier said recently, borrowing the drug metaphor from Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

But even Thompson, who coined the cocaine reference to describe the effect of ABC's "Millionaire" on the other networks, acknowledged yesterday that he was at a loss to describe what he felt Tuesday night as he watched "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?"

"Oh, yeah, a line was crossed,' Thompson said. "This was a big moment in American television history. You watched this and you thought to yourself two things. No. 1, this could be no worse. Television, in its ability to do really bad ideas and to come up with the most stupid things to use itself for, could not top this.

"And the second thing you are thinking as you watch: This is exactly what TV is so good at doing, but we have always been a little squeamish as a country about letting it do. We somehow seem to have lost that squeamishness now and are willing to let television go whole hog bringing us in the privacy of our homes that which we would be ashamed to admit in public that we love."

Thompson acknowledges that he could not stop watching the show, and that his fascination grew as the program proceeded and one of the women was finally chosen to marry the millionaire.

"As much as publicly I want to say there are so many things wrong with the show that I don't even know where to begin, I sat transfixed for that two hours. Not as a professor of television, but an American loving to watch this incredible, jaw-droppingly strange event unfold before my eyes. Bring it on -- more, more, more."

And the networks are doing just that. Three new reality-based shows are planned for summer.

"Survivor," which will air for 13 weeks on CBS, features 16 contestants stranded on an island in the Pacific. We watch as they try to survive. Contestants are eliminated each week by a vote of the others until just one is left. In a European version that first aired in Sweden, one contestant committed suicide after being eliminated.

The series, which has been described as a cross between "Gilligan's Island" and "The Truman Show," pays the lone survivor $1 million. CBS has already sold the show to big-name sponsors such as Reebok, which will get product placement in addition to the advertising time, with contestants wearing Reebok sneakers.

CBS is also planning "Big Brother," which crosses MTV's "Real World" with "The Truman Show," throws a dozen or so people into a house with cameras and recording devices placed in such a way as to capture their every move. A European version even took viewers into the shower and bedroom while contestants were having sex.

Like "Survivor," each week one of the contestants is voted out. In "Brother," however, viewers can participate in the voting via phone and Internet. "Brother" debuted in the Netherlands and, in that version, the lone survivor won about $100,000.

Even PBS is getting in on the act with a June air date for "1900," a show taking a modern-day family and making them live as they would have a century ago except that their home is filled with cameras and recording devices.

Like "Survivor" and "Big Brother," "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is an import, originally airing in Britain.

"I think it's a sad day in American culture when we have to turn to Britain of all places for really bad ideas," Thompson said jokingly. "Didn't we throw tea into the harbor for the right to have stupid ideas all by ourselves? What happened to America as the great exporter of the most ridiculous popular culture in the history of Planet Earth?"

On a more serious note, though, Thompson also said it makes perfect sense that this new wave of guilty pleasures should come from European programmers not burdened by our Puritan concerns as to how low we should let our TV go.

"Like no other medium or even art form, television allows us to be high-minded in public and low-minded in the privacy of our homes. With these shows, we're suddenly embracing that TV power, telling the networks we want them to go for it," Thompson said.

" `Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire' is television allowing us to indulge the hypocrisy of our ids when nobody is watching."

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