Will Fox Be Kept From the Chickens, er, Ratings?

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Watching Rick Rockwell pluck his insta-bride out of a lineup of seemingly normal women had the gut-wrenching, irresistible allure of driving past a car wreck. Of course, that parallel may not be coincidental; the Fox network, which aired the ill-fated episode of "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" is known for its penchant for "reality-based programming," including titles like "When Good Pets Go Bad" and the car wreck-rich "World's Scariest Police Videos." Now, in the wake of creepy allegations about Rockwell and claims of temporary insanity by his erstwhile bride, Fox chairman Sandy Grushow has made a sweeping and dubious pronouncement: The network will no longer broadcast "exploitative material."

The public will be excused if they are not wholeheartedly convinced of Grushow's sincerity. "You have to take an announcement like this with some skepticism," says TIME critic James Poniewozik. "Fox has been embarrassed before, they've made pledges like this before, and they've been torn between reputation and ratings before. They've always gone for the ratings." Viewers may be hesitant to embrace Grushow's message for another reason: Shows like "Multi-Millionaire" generate stupendous ratings, and that means people are watching in droves — whether they admit it or not. Good taste is hardly a prerequisite for nabbing a record-breaking audience share, and in fact, really horrible taste is often a guaranteed ratings-booster. "People were watching 'Multi-Millionaire' because they were grossed out," says Poniewozik. With their eyes on the bottom line, network executives are understandably torn between expensive, quality programming that may take months to catch on with viewers and the cheap, immediate gratification of cringe-fests like "Multi-Millionaire." Since Grushow's declaration, the television world has been rife with speculation. Will Rupert Murdoch's network hold fast to its vow, even if it means taking a hefty hit in the ratings? Stay tuned: Fox may have inadvertently created the season's best cliffhanger.