''Millionaire'' scandal opens a can of worms for Fox--Reality TV poses risks to networks

Sorry, exploitation fans. Odds are you’ll never see World’s Biggest Bitches — a provisionally titled reality special Fox had in the pipeline. Sources say the show about ridiculously nasty women won’t likely air in your lifetime.

Why? Other than contracting an unexpected case of good taste, it seems Fox is learning that reality specials can be quite a bitch themselves. As anyone who wasn’t on a secluded honeymoon knows, Fox’s Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? devolved in one week from addictive fun and a potentially profitable franchise (its Feb. 15 airing grabbed 22 million viewers by show’s end) to a full-blown PR (and possibly legal) nightmare. First, questions were raised about whether the groom, San Diego real estate developer/stand-up comic Rick Rockwell, actually was a multimillionaire. Then, on Feb. 20, a 1991 restraining order surfaced. Turns out Rockwell’s former girlfriend had alleged he was physically abusive. (Rockwell denies the claim.)

Fox sheepishly canceled a planned Feb. 22 reairing, and issued a statement saying it is ”conducting our own review of the steps taken to look into Mr. Rockwell’s background.” Whatever it finds, Marry‘s off for good. ”It just opens up a can of worms that no one wants to deal with,” says the show’s host, Jay Thomas, who adds it’s ”disappointing” there won’t be any more. Some at Fox aren’t as disappointed as you might think. The network’s new chairman, Sandy Grushow, has blamed Fox’s current ratings slump partly on an overabundance of shock-value reality fare. ”I’d personally rather fail with quality than succeed with garbage,” he said in January.

Of course, there are plenty of other reality fans in the biz. This summer, once-staid CBS plans to air Survivor, a series that maroons a bunch of strangers on a desert island. The high-pressure game show was blamed for one man’s suicide in a recent Swedish version. Isn’t this — and Fox’s latest kerfuffle — causing the Eye to bat a lash? ”We’re very confident that the screening procedures will ensure those selected will be appropriate and ready,” says CBS spokesman Chris Ender, who adds that contestants will undergo criminal-background checks and credit probes. ”But this certainly heightens everybody’s awareness that you need to dot the i‘s and cross the t‘s.”

And if you think CBS is feeling the heat, try to gauge the temperature of the producers of Wed at First Sight, the much-anticipated syndicated series whose premise is to marry off up to five strangers a week. ”We always felt we had really strong background checks,” says Universal Worldwide Television’s Kristen Flannery. ”Obviously, in light of [Multi-Millionaire], we’ll step it up even more.”

But detective work can get you only so far. ”Every year, there is a surprise,” says Jon Murray, cocreator of MTV’s long-running fishbowl programs The Real World and Road Rules. ”Something emerges about someone’s past, even after 20 hours of taped interviews. It turns out to be a question they fudged, or didn’t explain well. Something we didn’t catch.” So far, the World producers have been lucky. The most serious brush with death has been Ruthie’s hospitalization for seizures following a drinking bout in Hawaii.

Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?
  • TV Show