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A Million-Dollar Fox Pas

Darva Conger Darva Conger has taken over my life.

It's been almost a month since Conger -- a registered nurse, an Air Force veteran and a big tease so far as the multimillionaires of this country are concerned -- appeared on a Fox February sweeps special where she was auctioned off, antebellum South-style, to stand-up comedian Rick Rockwell. Tastefully married by a justice of the peace before several million of their closest friends, these two total strangers soon departed on their honeymoon, presumably to live happily after ever until death did them part... or at least until common sense kicked in.

No sooner than the happy couple's return from the Bahamas did reports start to surface that maybe Rick Rockwell wasn't quite the catch we all presumed him to be. And while man should never tear asunder what God has brought together, apparently that admonition doesn't hold true for made-for-TV marriages. Conger announced she was putting the kibosh on her marriage to Rockwell -- a decision she apparently arrived at moments after sealing their union with a kiss.

And that would presumably be that. The Fates would have the sense to punch Conger's and Rockwell's 15 Minutes of Fame timecards, Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher would clear some space for their new roommates in the Hotel Obscurity and we the public would move on until the next round of bread and circuses came our way.

Only Conger's still here. And like an uninvited party guest who barges in the door, drinks all of your premium beer, double-dips her tortilla chips in the salsa and drops Triscuit crumbs all over your sofa, she shows no sign of leaving any time soon.

Conger has since embarked on a multi-talk-show publicity tour to rehabilitate her image in the eyes of a public that, until six weeks ago, was blissfully unaware of her existence. She went on Good Morning America, Today and 20/20 to tell a breathless nation that just because she agreed to marry a stranger whose main attributes appeared to be a net worth topping $2 million and his decision to pick her out of a line-up of 49 other aspiring courtesans, that didn't necessarily make her a money-grubbing whore. Why, she had no intention of all of ever marrying Rockwell -- the contest title "Who Wants To Marry A Multimillionaire?" being too subtle and nuanced for our Darva. Really, she just went on the show for shits and giggles.

Great. Fine. We believe you, Darva. Now shut up and go home.

But Darva won't shut up. Darva won't go home. And that's why, last week at the grocery store, I had a full-on Darva Conger-induced meltdown.

There I was, in the express lane, trying to rationalize whether multiple bottles of the same lo-cal Italian salad dressing count as one item or two, when I looked up at the magazine rack and came face-to-face with The Great Wall of Darva. Darva on the cover of People magazine next to her beady-eyed bridegroom. Darva peeking out from the corner of Newsweek, relegating the race to decide the next leader of the Free World to "In Other News..." status. Darva gracing the front pages of our nation's most esteemed periodicals, the National Enquirer and the Star. And, of course, Darva on the front of Martha Stewart Living showing how to make a stylish place mat out of your pre-nuptial agreement.

OK, I'm kidding about that last one. Still, everywhere you look these days -- respected newsweeklies, lurid tabloids, whatever you want to call People -- it's nothing but Darva, Darva, Darva!

I'm even starting to have nightmares now. Darva and me, locked in the Twenty-One isolation booth while a leering Chuck Woolery exhorts us to "feed your need for Greed!" "I take you to be my lawfully wedded millionaire," Darva coos to me as she rifles through my wallet. And as I vainly try to scream for help, Justice of the Peace Regis Philbin keeps asking, "Is that your final answer?"

Did I mention I'm naked in the dream?

If I'm visited by Darva-induced night terrors, I can only imagine how badly Sandy Grushow has been sleeping lately. Grushow is the chairman of Fox Television Entertainment Group and a man who, in a matter of days, saw a ratings bonanza meltdown into the mother of all cluster-fucks. First, rumors swirl that the multimillionaire Fox raffled off may just be a multi-thousandaire. Then, lax background checks fail to turn up the restraining order against Rockwell (Who Wants To Be Physically Threatened By A Multimillionaire?). And now, one annulment and plenty of egg on the face later, it turns out that Conger may not have actually been a veteran of the Gulf War as she claimed, unless San Antonio, Texas was our last line of defense against Saddam's crack Republican Guard troops.

What do you do if you're Sandy Grushow, and this public relations fiasco is starting to take a chunk out of your ad revenue? Simple. You announce you're quitting reality specials cold turkey.

"They're gone; they're over," Grushow told reporters, no doubt after subordinates had taken away his belt and shoelaces and hidden all the serrated butter knives in the Fox commissary.

If this sounds familiar, it's only because Grushow basically said the same thing two months ago. At the annual mid-season press junket in January, Grushow conceded that reality specials were ruining his network. Force-fed a steady diet of "When Animals Attack" and "World's Scariest Police Chases," viewers stopped tuning in to Fox -- at least, the viewers that advertisers like to reach did. The result? Fox's fall schedule tanked, and executives at the House That Rupert Built started to realize that they'd gone to the reality well once too often.

Back in January, Grushow assured everybody that Fox was through with the reality genre... at least until it could burn off the last few specials it had in the can. One of those was "Who Wants To Marry A Multimillionaire?" and what do you want to bet that Grushow wishes today he would have told the bartender to cut him off sooner?

Ah well. Live and learn.

So now, Grushow wants us to know, Fox is serious. Looking for titillating sleaze? Look somewhere else, punk. Want to gape at the latest televised freak show? Take a hike, son, Fox is all about the quality now. Want to watch a network pander to the lowest-common denominator? Try UPN. We're fresh out of crap here.

Or, in the words of Grushow, you can turn on Fox now, confident you won't have to watch "anything that is exploitative, that reeks of desperation, anything that's merely out for ratings."

So hit the bricks, David E. Kelley. Your reign of terror is over.

Kidding again. Sorry. What Grushow has in mind is those thrown-together festivals of found footage -- "When Pets Go Bad," "Secrets of the Alien Autopsy," et al. -- that have that distinctive Fox odor about them. Or, to put things even more plainly, most of the Thursday and Friday night line-ups.

Is Fox serious this time around? Its track-record does not inspire confidence. And keep in mind that as Grushow was entering Fox into a 12-step program for recovering reality-show addicts, the network was showing footage of Robbie Knievel jumping his motorcycle onto a moving freight train.

Because that stuff's pure Peabody Award material.

I'm not trying to dump on Fox here. It has a maverick, adventurous gene that the other networks sorely lack. More often than not Fox takes risks that would make the likes of NBC and CBS weak-kneed with fear. And that willingness to throw the dice has paid off with a clutch of hits -- The Simpsons, The X-Files, Malcolm in the Middle -- that no one else in the business would have touched. Even when those gambles don't pay off -- Action and Harsh Realm this year, for instance -- at least Fox fails in new and interesting ways instead of giving Tony Danza his umpteenth chance to carry a sitcom.

But that same daring also causes Fox to do profoundly stupid things. Two years ago, the network was all set to air footage of prison riots before grown-ups came back into the meeting room and restored order. Some Fox executives wanted to crash a 747 in the middle of the desert, for no other reason than it's fun to break stuff. And now the "Millionaire" fiasco. Anyone who can't see the inherent danger in (and inevitable outcry from) marrying off people sight unseen on national TV shouldn't be allowed to operate a pair of scissors, let alone a TV network.

Maybe Fox has learned its lesson. But more likely it hasn't, and a couple of months from now, Grushow will again fall prostrate before reporters, vowing that Fox will never again staple sausage links to a man's pants and lock him in the same room with a pack of ravenous wolverines. But at least, for the moment anyway, someone went and knocked a little sense into the head of a particularly dimwitted TV network. That's no reason to close banks and government offices for a day, but you take your little victories where you can.

Now if we can only find some way to get Darva Conger off my TV. Because that wolverine idea is looking real tempting.


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