"Joe Millionaire," Fox's latest twist on a staged reality program, exploded out of the starting gate, with an estimated 18.6 million people tuning in Monday -- the biggest audience for the premiere of an unscripted show and Fox's highest rating in that time period in more than eight years.
Fox has already stated that it won't be able to replicate the format, which features 20 women vying for the attention of what they think is the heir to a $50-million fortune -- the twist being that the man is actually a construction worker who earns under $20,000 a year.
Still, the network -- in the midst of a serious ratings slump this season -- is relying on the unscripted arena to try spurring a short-term comeback, with the second edition of "American Idol" returning this month and a project involving arranged marriages, "Married by America," to make its debut in March.
Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman said any infusion from unscripted programs is important but that the network must ultimately capitalize on it to establish other series. "You've got to use the circulation to launch scripted programming as well," she said.
Viewing of "Joe Millionaire" rose sharply after 9:30 p.m. -- once CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond" ended -- to easily win that half-hour, roughly doubling its closest competitor among adults age 18 to 49, the key demographic in selling ad time.
Like ABC's similarly themed "The Bachelor," the percentage of younger women tuning in by far exceeded men in the corresponding age brackets.
The question now is how well the series will hold up over the next six weeks (an extra episode may be added), with the conclusion to play during the February rating sweeps.
Not surprisingly, references to the central character as a "construction worker" might be a bit misleading. The bachelor in question, Evan Marriott, has also done some modeling, with bare-chested photos of his shoot for the magazine California Muscle displayed on thesmoking gun.com.
"We knew about that," Berman said, adding, "He hasn't made a living at it."
The site has also reported that Marriott, 28, of Capistrano Beach, was cited by the California Highway Patrol in September for "toll evasion" -- driving through an Irvine toll plaza without paying -- and fined $104.