Old scandals don't die, they just fade to Fox

Tonight's Harding-versus-Jones boxing bout is a form of postmodern art developed by the maverick network.

Eight years. Has it really been eight years since Tonya Harding and Paula Jones first screamed off the tabloids in giant letters? Well, as of tonight they are back in prime time ... in a different sort of way.

They won't talk to Barbara Walters or make guest appearances on a "very special" Law and Order. No, they will appear on the Fox network special Celebrity Boxing and attempt to pound each other's heads in.

Which all goes to show that old scandals don't die, they simply move to the Fox network, where they are made into bad television. It's something Fox has developed into a kind of postmodern art form.

For both Ms. Harding and Ms. Jones the special offers a chance to again occupy the spotlight, albeit at a somewhat dimmer wattage than their previous forays, and one would imagine a rather nice paycheck, though Fox won't reveal figures. The intervening years between scandal and square-off have not been good ones for either of the budding pugilists.

Following the knee-capping of rival Nancy Kerrigan just before the 1994 Olympics, Harding was banned for life by the US Figure Skating Association. In 2000, she was sentenced to three days in prison for assaulting her then-boyfriend with a hubcap - yes, a hubcap. Then in 2001 she was evicted from her apartment for failing to pay rent and laughed as she told the assembled reporters she would sleep in a her Corvette roadster.

Since her 1994 sexual-harassment lawsuit against then-President Bill Clinton, Jones and her husband have divorced. In 2000, she posed for Penthouse magazine's December issue. While copies are no longer available on the newsstand, according to her website she has made "a very limited supply" of autographed copies available for only $100 apiece. And mugs and T-shirts are "coming soon."

But the real winner in the Harding versus Jones match is Fox, which after "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire," where women vied for the right to marry a supposedly rich man, and "Who Wants to Be a Princess," where women vied for the right to date a prince, keeps broadening the definition for what some might call crass gimmickry.

"I'm not really surprised," says culture and media critic Neil Gabler. "This is a form of entertainment now, and people will watch for the curiosity factor. But there is a second thing at work here. People will watch because it is a kind of a goof. By watching, you are participating."

More than any other network, Fox's lineup stands out for its unevenness.

On any given night, a viewer can tune in and see a cutting-edge show that is critically acclaimed like "24" and "The Simpsons" or a cutting-edge program that is roundly chastised, like "Temptation Island" and "The Chamber."

In the end, Mr. Gabler says, Fox is different from its competitors, ABC, CBS and NBC, in part because it is the newest network and less tied to the era when public service was seen as a bigger part of a network's mission. The other three networks don't air wrestling or "Celebrity Boxing" because those programs don't "comport with their image of themselves."

'Fox goes upscale and downscale," Gabler says. "And in something like this, they do it simultaneously. People know it's bad, but watch to be in on the joke."

In fact, everything about Fox's "Celebrity Boxing" rings of one giant inside joke, including the two undercard bouts, made up of former child sitcom thespians (the "Partridge Family's" Danny versus the "Brady Bunch's" Greg) and a pop-music "sensation" whose success lasted weeks.

Gabler, however, isn't sure that in the end all the jabbing and irony will amount to the ratings bonanza Fox would like.

"The notion of suspense is lacking," he says. "People will tune in for a bit to see what's happening, just for the novelty. But in the end, who cares? The narrative possibilities are fairly limited."

But don't necessarily expect the trend to end. Considering the amount of B-level scandal talent out there looking for work, Fox's potential casting list must go on for pages.

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