Fox savors 'Multimillionaire' splash - and plans to repeat it

NEW YORK (AP) - Johnna Hensley didn't see ''Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?'' But she couldn't avoid it.

''Somebody's always looking to get something for nothing, regardless of the consequences,'' said Hensley, a registered nurse in Fayetteville, Ga., where, like most places, the Fox TV special has been discussion Topic A this week.

Whether they liked it or not, viewers flocked to the Tuesday night broadcast when a San Diego millionaire married a Santa Monica, Calif., nurse. That included one-third of all women viewers between 18 to 34 for the concluding half-hour. Some found the concept - women vying to marry a wealthy man they've never met - demeaning to women and the institution of marriage.

''I think it's tremendously cynical,'' said Regan Batuello, a homemaker and vintner in Cutchogue, N.Y. ''It doesn't demean womanhood, it demeans everyone.''

''We seem to have created some water-cooler talk,'' Fox Entertainment president Doug Herzog said Thursday, savoring the phenomenal response. In the show's defense, he said, ''The people participated in their own free will.''

And so did the viewers.

If you weren't among them, that's OK. You'll get another chance to behold the whirlwind romance Tuesday, when Fox repeats it in an even brisker one-hour version. Scheduled for 8 p.m. EST (replacing the previously announced ''Banned in America: The World's Sexiest Television''), the encore even promises some previously unaired footage.

''Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?,'' of course, is Fox's nonviolent twist on the reality specials that have won the network big ratings and, often, sharp criticism. Here, instead of ''World's Deadliest Swarms,'' is the World's Quickest Courtship.

And perhaps the most public. Taped at a Las Vegas hotel, multimillionaire Rick Rockwell, a 42-year-old San Diego real estate investor, found Miss Right from among 50 eligible females vying for his nod in bathing suits and wedding gowns. Rockwell met, chose and wed Darva Conger, a 34-year-old emergency room nurse from Santa Monica before the show's final fadeout.

As suspense built, so did the audience, according to Nielsen ratings figures. Viewership grew from 10 million viewers in the program's first half-hour to an enormous 22.8 million in the final half-hour.

Then came the aftermath: discussion and indignation from talk shows and op-ed columns.

''Whatever happened to working for a living and marrying for love?'' wondered Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, authors of the book ''The Rules,'' in an op-ed piece Thursday in The New York Times.

''We're pretty pleased,'' said Herzog. ''It was a bit of an audacious idea, but we thought it was handled in a manner that was appropriate.''

''Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?'' owes its existence to ABC's quiz sensation ''Who Wants to be a Millionaire,'' which has set in motion other game and ''reality rivalry'' shows.

These include ''Big Brother,'' which this summer will install volunteers in a home equipped with two dozen cameras and 59 microphones. And on CBS, ''Survivor'' will pit 16 contestants against one another on a deserted island off Borneo. The winner gets $1 million.

Meanwhile, Fox is planning its own real-life soap opera, ''High School,'' which follows a suburban Chicago high school class through the school year.

As for ''Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?'' its success almost guarantees a sequel.

''We're definitely thinking about it,'' Herzog allowed.

And what about reports that in a future edition the table might be turned, with a well-to-do woman seeking Mr. Right?

''To be determined,'' Herzog replied.


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