Prime Time 'I Do's'

While Hollywood is busy studying the success of "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" in order to concoct a gazillion imitations, let's pause to examine the deeper lessons of America's newest game-show phenomenon. Lesson 1: Despite so much talk about stock-market riches, there are still at least 50 women so poor--or desperate--that they'll parade themselves on national television for the dubious reward of marrying a stranger. 2: Under no circumstances should a woman wear a red dress when attempting to snare a TV millionaire; not one of the scarlet ladies made it to the semifinals. 3: Linda Evans hasn't worked in years, but her "Dynasty" hairdo scored for "Multi-Millionaire" winner Darva Conger. 4: The women of Kansas need help; they made up a disproportionate number (four) of the contestants.

But the biggest "Multi-Millionaire" lesson is the one we learn every time Regis hogs another minute of air time: game shows are big, bad and they're here to stay. Though its audience was smaller in the hour when it competed with ABC's "Millionaire," Fox scored its biggest Tuesday audience in two years with the two-hour "Multi" pulling in 23 million viewers in the final 30 minutes. With the networks still reeling from the "Millionaire" juggernaut, the success of "Multi-Millionaire" is bound to scramble the conventional TV wisdom again. As "Multi" spawns its own wave of imitators, will there be any room left for traditional shows like situation comedies? Has the balance of power begun to swing back toward the networks and away from cable at last? "Networks have been losing audience for years," says Mike Darnell, who created "Multi-Millionaire." "These game shows have shown that with the right thing, you can get them all back."

It helps if you hit on an idea as creepy and fascinating as "Multi-Millionaire." Darnell, who created the low-water landmark "When Good Pets Go Bad," admits he was inspired by "Millionaire." "I kept thinking, 'How can I cash in on that?' " he says. "People are always interested in relationships. Combine that with the wish-fulfillment of 'Millionaire' and the spectacle of Miss America and it's just an odd combination of events." Very odd. While the 50 women marched around in swimsuits and wedding gowns, the unidentified groom sat behind a screen selecting ever-smaller groups of potential brides. Not surprisingly, feminists blasted the show, but the ratings were especially strong among females 18 to 34. "I'm not so appalled," says Helen Gurley Brown. "A lot of women want to marry someone rich."

Darnell says Fox had no trouble rounding up people willing to wed at first sight. The women signed prenuptial agreements (though they might be disappointed to learn that the groom, Rick Rockwell, is "barely a multimillionaire," says Darnell, meaning he's got only about $2 million, with a chunk of that tied up in real estate). No one was actually required to get married. "They could have said no. I don't know what we would have done in that situation," Darnell says. While they are legally wed--which means Conger can keep the $35,000 diamond ring and the Isuzu Trooper she won no matter what--they're not exactly a typical couple. Darnell says that Rockwell and Conger are staying in separate cabins on their grand-prize Caribbean cruise. "They are taking it slow," he says.

That relatively sensible attitude doesn't fully explain what kind of person would appear on "Multi-Millionaire" in the first place. Rockwell, 42, is a San Diego real-estate developer with an appetite for the spotlight. He spent much of his life as a stand-up comic (biggest gig: telling jokes for 30 straight hours in an effort to set a Guinness Book record). Fox selected him from more than 100 millionaire applicants who, like the women, were recruited through radio ads and Internet searches. "There were men who were much wealthier," says Darnell. "But he was charming and attractive. We didn't want women to groan when he came on at the end of the show."

Conger, 34, is a gulf war veteran and an emergency-room nurse in California. While some "Multi" women said they were looking for fun rather than a husband--one finalist, Jennifer Mann, stuck out her tongue every time Rockwell selected her for the next round--Conger seemed especially committed. She even beamed when Rockwell planted a sloppy kiss on her lips. "I can't begin to imagine what was going through her head," says Teresa Bowman, one of the 10 semifinalists. Bowman says she had a "great time" for most of the show--until she realized she could be getting married. "It hit me--this could happen," she says. "I felt my heart skip and I thought, 'What have I done?' "

If anyone knows exactly what they've done with "Multi-Millionaire," it's Fox. The network quickly scheduled a one-hour rebroadcast of the show for this week. They'll almost certainly make more episodes, though a gender switch--millionaire woman picks from 50 men--will probably wait awhile. But they shouldn't wait long. A syndicated show, "Wed at First Sight," is set to launch this fall featuring three contestants (usually male) selected by a nonmillionaire woman. The producers hope for a quickie wedding every day of the week.

And there's more. While some of the first wave of "Millionaire" spinoffs--notably CBS's "Winning Lines"--have faltered, the pump is primed for even more bizarre game shows. This summer, CBS plans to air the 100-episode "Big Brother," where 10 people will be sequestered in a house stocked with 24 video cameras. One by one, the housemates will be voted out by their members. Viewers will decide which of the final three residents will be the last to leave. "TV is going through a rapid change," says CBS president Leslie Moonves. "People are looking for anything that's different." Now that we've gotten hitched to these wacky shows, getting a divorce is not going to be easy.

Prime Time 'I Do's' | News