“Who needs football when we’ve got bunnies?” That’s the rhetorical question in a promo for the “Fear Factor” reality show. For it seems Super Bowl XXXVI won’t be the only hot TV ticket on Sunday, Feb. 3.

That’s the rhetorical question in a promo for the “Fear Factor” reality show. For it seems Super Bowl XXXVI won’t be the only hot TV ticket on Sunday, Feb. 3.

At least 130 million viewers are expected to turn to the FOX network to watch the New England Patriots take on the St. Louis Rams in the New Orleans Superdome. The year’s biggest sporting spectacle (save this year’s Winter Olympics) commands roughly $2 million from advertisers seeking a 30-second commercial slot.

But it’s also commanding the attention of NBC, which won’t forfeit the day’s ratings to the game’s telecaster, as has been the custom.

Instead, NBC will deploy some shrewd counter-programming: “Fear Factor: Playmates Edition.”  As in Playboy Bunny Playmates.

NBC will broadcast 20 minutes of the Playmates special during the Super Bowl’s halftime, and the remaining 60 minutes after the game ends.

For its part, FOX will broadcast an hour-long “Malcolm in the Middle” after the Super Bowl. The special episode will guest star Susan Sarandon, Tom Green, Christina Ricci, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and others, making it, according to the show’s Web site, “The Ultimate Post-Game Extravaganza!”

Unless, of course, viewers think like NBC hopes.

Reality series “Fear Factor” pits six people against each other—and extreme challenges—for a cash prize of up to $50,000. Challenges have included lying down in a vat of snakes, eating cow brains and jumping from one moving semi-truck to another.

Though “Fear Factor” won’t reveal all the challenges awaiting the Playmates, Entertainment Weekly confirmed that “there is a water stunt in which—what a shocker—the contestants have to strip down to their bathing suits!”

For the first time, the Super Bowl will be played during February sweeps. “Sweeps” refers to the four months—February, May, August and November—during which TV ratings are most closely monitored to determine advertising rates. That’s when networks roll out their biggest and best, hoping to draw more viewers.

So in this Super-Bowl-Sweeps situation, the folks at NBC decided to meld Playmates with peril, no doubt hoping the combination of skin and stunts will be gratuitous enough to rain on FOX’s parade, er, pigskin.

The Los Angeles Times referred to NBC’s ploy as an example of the “brass-knuckles tactics networks are using to amass ratings at the expense of competitors.”

But Jeff Zucker, NBC’s entertainment president, said the network was simply “having fun” by counter-programming with Playmates, according to the Los Angeles Times. “If you don’t want to watch [“Fear Factor”], there’ll be a marching band or U2 at halftime,” he said, referring to the Irish rockers who will headline the Super Bowl’s halftime show.

FOX, despite its love affair with shows like “Temptation Island,” wants to take the high road in response to NBC’s tactics.

“Between the Super Bowl and ‘Malcolm in the Middle,’ Fox is offering a night of television the whole family can watch together,” a Fox spokesman said in Electronic Media. “NBC’s programming choice speaks for itself.”

Actually, “Fear Factor” executive producer Matt Kunitz speaks for it too.

”It’s still NBC so it’s not going to be overtly sexual,” Kunitz told Entertainment Weekly. ”It’s still the same crazy irreverent show. It just happens to have six sexy women in it.”

Right. And the Super Bowl just happens to have a football.

Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.

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