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‘Fear'-ful Playmates

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NBC (which takes pride in being known as "the home of the quality shows") has decided to shoot its best shot at Fox and the Super Bowl on Sunday.

And NBC ("the home of the quality shows") has loaded up its cannon with a special edition of "Fear Factor" — a special edition that features Playboy Playmates as contestants.

Remember — "the home of the quality shows."

"Fear Factor," of course, is the exploitative reality/game show in which contestants have to perform dangerous and/or grotesque stunts — being covered in rats or bugs, having to bob for plums in a barrel loaded with snakes, having to eat raw bull testicles.

All of which should be just soooo much more fun when it's done with Playboy Playmates.

It is possible to put fear into the Playmates, we're assured. "We make them eat," Rogan quipped.

And there are things they're afraid of. "Aging is a huge one," Rogan said. "The husband going bankrupt."

This is the brainchild of NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, who (believe it or not) was the executive producer of "The Today Show" before assuming his current position. His network plans to do the first "Fear Factor" stunt live opposite the Super Bowl halftime show (NBC will break into a repeat of "Weakest Link"); the competition will resume with an hour scheduled to air at 9 p.m.

"We do big stunts, and it's stunt programming to the Playmates show against the Super Bowl," said executive producer Matt Kunitz, who went on to assure us that "this show with the Playmates is no different than any other 'Fear Factor' show that we would normally put on. It just happens to be Playmates."

Yeah, right. Even Rogan was rolling his eyes at that one.

We do know that at least one of the stunts will feature Playmates "in their bathing suits" in some "very cold water."

Not that the folks at Fox seem overly worried about NBC's ploy.

"Look, more power to 'em," Sandy Grushow, Fox Entertainment chairman, said. "I actually applaud their aggressiveness."

But he could not, of course, resist taking a dig or two at the competition.

" 'Fear Factor' is obviously a show that Mr. Zucker is very proud of," Grushow said, evoking a burst of laughter, "and why not make the most of it?"

Proud might not be the word. Zucker obviously loves the ratings "Fear Factor" manages to attract, but even he can't bring himself to say he's proud of the show.

"We come out here and we talk about quality shows on NBC and we list them. We don't put 'Fear Factor' in that list," Zucker said. "It is the quality shows that define NBC, and I think that's the standard people hold us to, and they should. . . . But at the same time, we're also a broadcaster. We do 22 hours (in prime time) a week. Not every hour is going to be 'West Wing' or 'Friends' or 'Law & Order.'

"So as a broadcaster, when you're trying to attract different audiences, my belief is you have to put on some different kinds of programs."

Apparently, different also means "cheesy." Or "tacky." Or "reprehensible."

Just don't ask Zucker what his favorite part of "Fear Factor" is.

"Honestly, I haven't given much thought to a favorite 'Fear Factor' stunt," he said. "I will think about that, though, and get back to you."

(He did, however, deadpan that he was "mesmerized" by that plums-and-snakes bit.)

It's not an original idea to try to draw viewers away from the Super Bowl halftime show. Fox did it to NBC, as a matter of fact, back in the early '90s with a live edition of "In Living Color."

"It's not written anywhere that other networks should lay down on Super Bowl Sunday," Grushow said. "So we have no problems whatsoever with what they're doing."

No, the only people who might object are those with taste and any sense of decorum whatsoever.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com