MEDIA WATCH: Fox hits the media-coverage jackpot with 'Joe Millionaire'

It's rare these days to turn on the television without seeing a reality show. With the success in recent years of The Real World, Survivor, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and American Idol, networks are flooding the airwaves with a number of unscripted shows, looking to jump on the bandwagon and discover "the next big thing."

It's rare these days to turn on the television without seeing a reality show. With the success in recent years of The Real World, Survivor, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and American Idol, networks are flooding the airwaves with a number of unscripted shows, looking to jump on the bandwagon and discover "the next big thing."

Joe Millionaire, which debuted on Fox on January 6, is currently the flavor of the month, so Media Watch analyzed a sampling of coverage to see what all of the hysteria is about. The Orlando Sentinel (January 21) recognized all of the publicity the show has been receiving; pointing out that it "has been a topic from the tabloids to The New York Times op-ed page." As everyone knows, the idea of Joe Millionaire is to tell 20 beautiful women that this young, GQ-looking hunk has just inherited $50 million, and they have several weeks to vie for his affections to secure a marriage proposal. Of course, the catch is that the whole story of the inheritance is a sham, and "Joe" is really Evan Marriott, a construction worker who earns $19,000 a year. The New York Times (January 8) observed, "Fox has promoted the show for its insights into the supposed gold-digging of women. The promotional gambit has proved successful." Most of the media coverage on Joe Millionaire has been glowing in terms of its ratings. Its debut attracted the largest audience of any network reality series in the last five years, as well as the highest rating of any premiere this season - reality show or otherwise. Of particular importance is the fact that Joe Millionaire is hugely popular with the highly coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic. However, the ethics of this premise have gotten Fox and the show into some hot water with television critics and the general public. The Washington Post (January 20) criticized the network by arguing, "Duping the babettes of Joe Millionaire was as bad as telling a contestant who had correctly answered all the questions on ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? 'Sorry, we don't have a million dollars for you.'" Critics also pan "reality" shows for not being real at all - these "unscripted shows" are manipulated by editors and producers, and sometimes even the on-air talent. The Chicago Tribune (January 16) wrote, "It is a truism by now to point out that reality TV is unreal." Reality shows were further badmouthed for being tacky and lowering the quality of television programming. Even so, the network is unapologetic for its emphasis on reality shows and for the concept of Joe Millionaire, preferring bad press to no press. Sandy Grushow, Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman, told USA Today, "There's nothing scarier than a show coming to television that no one's talking about." Coverage of Joe Millionaire also included a number of allegations that Fox had falsely promoted the show by failing to mention Marriott's work as a model and an actor. There were also suggestions that there is a trust fund somewhere for Marriott, and that he is nowhere near as financially troubled as has been portrayed. While Joe Millionaire is only a seven-week series, there is little doubt that there will be another reality show around the corner to capture everyone's attention and reinforce the current popularity of the genre.
  • Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.

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