‘Joe Millionaire’ Dwarfs Jackson Special

NEW YORK – Unknown to the world just a few weeks ago, Evan Marriott has overthrown the King of Pop — at least, on network television.

Marriott, of course, was the make-believe moneybags of Fox’s “Joe Millionaire” who, on the finale of this unscripted-but-staged mating dance, chose Zora over Sarah as his lady love.

Meanwhile, viewers roundly chose Marriott over Michael Jackson, the subject of rival specials on ABC and NBC.

According to Nielsen numbers, the “Joe Millionaire” finale, which aired 8 to 10 p.m. EST Monday, drew an average 34.6 million viewers. The audience soared to 40 million in the second hour.

This figure approaches that of last year’s Academy Awards broadcast of 41.8 million. It was the highest series telecast on any network since CBS’ premiere of “Survivor II” in January 2001 — in the post-Super Bowl slot — according to Fox, which also said it was Fox’s highest-rated entertainment program ever.

The enormous number dwarfed the 11.9 million audience for the 9-to-10-p.m. hour of a “Dateline NBC” special, “Michael Jackson Unmasked,” airing head-to-head against “Joe Millionaire.” The “Dateline” 10-to-11-p.m. hour rose to 17.2 million viewers.

“Joe Millionaire” also substantially outdrew ABC’s Feb. 6 broadcast of a two-hour Jackson special produced by British television; its audience averaged 27.1 million viewers, making it the most-watched show for that week.

ABC repeated that special Monday night from 9 to 11 p.m., drawing an audience of 9.5 million viewers. From 8 to 9 p.m., ABC aired a “PrimeTime” special, “The Many Faces of Michael Jackson,” which drew 10 million viewers.

Fox, not to miss out on Michael-mania, plans to air an alternative, more sympathetic version of the ABC special, called “Michael Jackson Take 2: The Interview They Wouldn’t Show You,” on Thursday.

For the moment, however, Fox can savor its triumph by “Joe Millionaire.”

The 28-year-old Marriott is presumably happy, too. On the finale — taped last Thanksgiving — he and Zora Andrich, the dark-haired, New Jersey schoolteacher, were presented with a $1 million check from the show.

Although such a windfall would be chump change to the $50 million heir Marriott was pretending to be on the show, in reality he was a construction worker making $19,000 a year.

But Zora, who beat out blond Sarah Kozer, didn’t care that he had lied to her, along with the other 19 women who had vied for his affections through the competition.

“I really was turned off by the fact that you inherited all that money,” she told him after digesting his confession.

One of several among the networks’ latest crop of so-called reality series, “Millionaire” began its run Jan. 6 — and instantly proved a hit with its blend of dating game and practical joke. It attracted 18.6 million viewers for its premiere.

And Monday’s smash conclusion isn’t exactly a conclusion. Next week, millionaire lovebirds Evan and Zora will be back for a Fox special, “Joe Millionaire: The Aftermath.”