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sean elder

The emperor's new shows
For Rupert Murdoch, being a media mogul means never having to say you're sorry.

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By Sean Elder

Feb. 24, 2000 | 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 ...

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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."

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Illustration by Zach Trenholm

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