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December 04, 2008

Fox's 'Secret Millionaire' delivers ratings surprise

Ch_day3_3111_2 Fox's latest reality effort "Secret Millionaire" performed much better than expected Wednesday night, giving the network hope that the short-order, recession-timed series could become a returning hit.

The evening's back-to-back episodes of "Millionaire" averaged 7.4 million viewers and a 2.6 preliminary adults 18-49 rating.

Though not huge numbers overall, Fox's expectations were low: "Millionaire" was only modestly promoted and debuted in December -- when new programs typically have a tough time attracting audiences. Plus, the "Millionaire" audience grew each half-hour, topping out at a 3.1 rating to beat ABC's "Private Practice" and CBS’ "Grammy Nominations Concert Live" during the 9 p.m. hour.

"I’m thrilled and surprised a little bit," said Mike Darnell, Fox's president of alternative entertainment. "We’re now at a point where we see a lot more potential."

In the show, multi-millionaires go undercover in impoverished neighborhoods to find worthwhile charity cases. The program is considered a soft-hearted departure from the network's usual reality brand of more competition-oriented and envelope-pushing fare. Fox has four more episodes of "Millionaire" planned for the coming weeks, and the network is going to crank up its promotional machine to see if it can turn the brief December effort into a returning show. 

The show, which wasn't sent to critics, drew mixed morning-after reviews. TV writers admired the show's generosity, but were suspicious of the network's intentions.

"It plays well in December," writes Roger Catlin, "rather like a modern-day 'Christmas Carol' with contemporary Ebenezer Scrooges learning how the Bob Cratchits live in experiences only slightly longer than those ushered in the by the Ghost of Christmas Present."

LA Times fretted, "I don't know whether you can rightly call it exploitation to give a person $50,000, [but] I can't help but wonder how much Fox is going to make on this thing, and where that money will go."

"It's impossible to walk away from watching this and be too cynical," said Darnell, whose record includes controversial programs such as "The Moment of Truth." "I have never received so many positive e-mails."

Many critics noted the show seems poised to take advantage of the economic recession, an aspect not lost on Fox. "Unfortunately, its timing couldn't be better," sighed the Washington Post.

"We got lucky," Darnell said. "I bought this when economic times were falling and we’re airing it when economic times are terrible."

As for the rest of Wednesday's lineup, CBS won the night with the evening's highest-rated show -- "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" (11.7 million, 4.2). The first-ever attempt at airing Grammy nominations (7.1 million, 2.4) performed solid, while the annual "Victoria's Secret Fashion Show" (8.7 million, 3.6) -- broadcast television's equivalent to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue -- jumped 38% from last year to win 10 p.m.

Fox was second with "Millionaire." NBC placed third, with "Christmas at Rockefeller Center" (10.4 million, 2.2) up slightly from last year, followed by "Life" (8.1 million, 2.3) and "Law & Order" (11.3 million, 2.9)

In fourth, ABC aired "Pushing Daisies" (4.9 million, 1.5), "Private Practice" (7.8 million, 2.6) and "Dirty Sexy Money" (5.7 million, 1.7).


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