Sunday, February 27th, 2000
Did you hear? Fox 5’s Russ Spencer got mugged the other day. In fact, he flew out to Los Angeles to join a dozen or so other Fox anchors—all of whom were attacked by muggers—as a stunt for the Fox series America’s Most Wanted.
Spencer, fully miked and accompanied by a camera crew, was roughed up by a gun-toting guy in a parking lot. It was, we were told, an important educational experience that we could all learn from. Uh right. What did he learn from it? "Pay attention to the guy with the gun," Spencer says. What did we learn from it? That there’s no limits to how low Fox will go for ratings. But I guess that isn’t exactly a bulletin, after their most recent audience-grabbing stunt blew up in the Fox-faces.
Oh, you know: that marrying a multimillionaire show. A concept that got so out of hand that right-wing Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch’s own New York Post ran a column from a conservative staffer who said he was worried that the Fox network may not be upholding good conservative values these days in an effort to boost ratings. These days? I’m FedExing him 920 episodes of Married With Children, with a post-it note stuck to the top: "Good conservative values? You’re soaking in it!"
The truth is that Murdoch has never had any compunctions about pandering to sex or exhibiting general salaciousness when it comes to selling newspapers or hustling TV audiences. His English tabloids have had bare-breasted Brit babes just inside the cover for years.
When Fox discovered that a series of specials with names like America’s Deadliest Police Chases ,World’s Most Terrifying Crashes and When Animals Attack! were cheap to produce and pulled huge audiences, well, they went with that flow, and didn’t spend too much time agonizing over moral questions.
So when complaints about the programs’ violent nature hit too close to home, they did what the network seems to do best—they backpedaled, and said they wouldn’t be doing that kind of stuff anymore. And they went to (this amazes me) the very same producers who gave them the car crash stuff and said "we need more sweeps specials from you—but uh this time make them completely nonviolent."
I guess you have to say the producers of Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire were just doing what they were charged to do—they came up with a compelling concept that would glue people’s faces to the screen—in spite of themselves. Compelling indeed—some 16 million people watched the show—including one out of every four young women. Viewers—we—talked about the show for a big chunk of this month, and ABC made ratings hay by sending Diane Sawyer and friends out to get the story behind the story. One word to sum the whole experience up, Darva? "Oops," she told Diane.
And when the furor over Multimillionaire flared, Fox said they were shocked, shocked and they’ve canceled plans to do anything like that again. I can picture Fox execs on the phone to those same producers: "Alright, no violence, and no poorly-researched instant bridegrooms, but beyond that, the sky’s the limit—get back out there and get us some numbers!"
Air it first, apologize later, and then go back to the drawing board and try something else. The Fox pattern.
But you’ve got to wonder when that same pattern makes its way into the newsrooms of the Fox owned-and-operated stations—like Channel 5. What happened inside Spencer’s head when his news director said "Pack your bags, Russ, you’re going to LA!" Visions of exclusive interviews with Hollywood celebs or campaigning politicians were no doubt shattered when he got the rest of it: "Something violent is going to happen to you, on camera. We can’t tell you any specifics at this point."
At one point (back in the ancient past), journalists were trained to have a loud alarm go off in their heads when they’re presented with an "opportunity" like this. Credibility alert! Psuedo-news warning! Danger, danger!
Maybe Russ has something in his contract that says "you are required to go along with any idiotic thing we come up with for sweeps." We’ll never know for sure. But I’d like to know whether those alarms went off inside his skull, even faintly. You know the same alarms that were supposed to go off for the Multimillionaire producers. The alarms that should be clanging nonstop inside Rupert Murdoch’s head. And in ours, when we tune in.