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The Real Worlds- Reality TV brings out the voyeur in each of us -- ''Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?'' marked the genre's heights (and depths)

by Josh Wolk

With its Reege -ish title, ''Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?'' first looked like Fox's sneaky attempt to lure in game show fans who'd misread their TV listings. Then 22 million people tuned in Feb. 15 to watch Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger leap into the tender trap. You can't blame ratings like that on cataracts.

Eventually, the whole Rockwell- Conger huppah came tumbling down. (First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the queasy honeymoon, the tabloid maelstrom, the quick stop annulment, the inevitable Playboy pictorial....) Fox, ever mindful of taste and discretion, speedily canned plans for a repeat broadcast and sequels. But considering the subsequent reality TV craze, Fox probably shouldn't have tossed away that bouquet so fast. ''It was like giving up on a stock too soon,'' says ''Multi-Millionaire'' host Jay Thomas.

As ''Survivor'' proved nearly four months later, reality TV's magnet was the promise of unpredictability: We know that Chandler and Monica will make up after a fight, but we haven't a clue what happens when strangers swap vows or starving contestants try to catch fish. ''When I turn on 'The West Wing,' the president's not gonna be sleeping with an intern. He's saving the world,'' Thomas says. ''But with reality shows, the ending isn't always tied up in a bow.''

The other networks, which had been slowly warming to reality TV, reacted to this epiphany by jetting abroad and scooping up more neo- voyeuristic concepts. ''The Mole,'' ''Popstars,'' ''Chains of Love''... they all would toss civilians in front of a camera and bank on a meltdown. Even Fox took another spin at romantic roulette with ''Love Cruise'' and ''Temptation Island,'' both slated for 2001.

Then again, sometimes real life is real freakin' dull. Witness ''Big Brother.'' ''They were trying to create drama where there wasn't any,'' says ''Brother''ite Karen Fowler, whose marital complaints became that show's only meager sliver of theater. ''I've only seen two of the regular shows ... I was bored, and I knew these people!'' Sums up ''Survivor'' executive producer Mark Burnett, ''Some reality TV will be fantastic; some will be terrible. That's [also] the case with dramas and comedies.''

Our lesson? Audiences don't discriminate between reality and scripted TV, only between entertaining and boring -- something all those terrified sitcom writers might want to remember. One TV vet says that anybody who's writing a mediocre show has no right to kvetch that a network ''is going to take away my lame show and replace it with one that might be more compelling to viewers.'' After all, didn't Richard Hatch teach us anything about survival of the fittest?