HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — Let's see. An 8,000- pound elephant squares off against a team of little people to see who can move a jumbo jet 75 feet the fastest. A group of strangers line up to march down the aisle to marry a partner randomly picked by bunch of other strangers. Another group of near-strangers, in a fierce match for a million bucks, gobble down animal body parts even the butcher doesn't like to talk about.
Now, if you haven't been glued to your TV set for the past few weeks, you could be forgiven for thinking that this list is actually a bunch of ideas for TV shows that were rejected by programming executives because they sink too low just to grab a few ratings points.
You would be wrong, of course. These are all shows that have aired or will air soon.
But it's hard not to wonder, with such fare actually making it to air, is there anything, any idea at all, that these ratings-hungry network execs are turning down? The answer, is yes. For now.
"We turned down full frontal nudity on 'Dog Eat Dog,' " says Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment. The network chief who has challenged the boundaries of contestants' palettes on "Fear Factor," says that after the < episode with the offensive exposure crossed his desk, he sent it back for reworking. It aired, he adds, with discreet shielding of the nudity.
Noble sentiment, says media pundit Robert Thompson, but perhaps not necessary. "What we like to think of as the human spirit being corrupted by television," he says, "is actually some of the baser sides of the human spirit that have always been with us, just being laid bare by television." Just read the Old Testament or check out an old P.T. Barnum Circus lineup, he says, if you want confirmation of unsavory behavior that's been on display for millenniums.
In some ways, he says, it's about time for TV to broaden its repertoire. "Television has managed to ignore real love and death, the biggest human conditions we have." Allowing people to improvise within defined parameters is a genre that has only begun to reveal its real potential, he adds.
The Fox Network is one of the early pioneers to explore the love side of Professor Thompson's maxim. Who knew how much entertainment value there was in watching people break the biblical taboo against coveting your neighbor's significant other ("Temptation Island")? Nonethe-less, says entertainment president Gail Berman, there are some shows she won't do.
She now hears so many pitches for unscripted shows that the ideas can be loosely grouped into categories, one of them being objects falling from space. "You wouldn't believe what a big category that is and how many hundreds of ideas come to us every day. People falling out of planes; off buildings, mountains - amazing, really," she says.
In addition, she says, "we debuted the format," and have a sense of responsibility about where it goes. In a new program such as "Man Versus Beast," the show in which a team of little people race an elephant to tug an aircraft across a tarmac [an event that, when we last checked, has yet to be registered as an Olympic sport], she notes Fox took precautions over possible sensitivities.
"We feel a responsibility to let people know that the animals have all been handled responsibly," she says.
Networks do vary on what's acceptable. Nancy Tellem, CBS Entertainment president, says the network that spied on a house full of strangers in their most intimate moments ("Big Brother"), wouldn't do the man versus animal shows, "because we have an image to uphold." In a similar grab for a fig leaf of dignity, Lloyd Braun, ABC Entertainment chairman, says his network has a moral and legal responsibility to audiences and contestants. "If we think a show is too dangerous or mean-spirited, we've turned them down. We've had people come to us with life and death stunts I promise you would get ratings, but we didn't even take it to legal because it never made it out of our office."
The network has no qualms, however, about an imminent show called "Wife Swap," in which two women exchange homes, husbands, and children (but not marital beds) for two weeks.
But mere legal quibbles don't seem to stanch the flow of new ideas, says producer Eric Shotz. "We had someone who wanted us to break into the Getty Museum and steal a painting," says the creator of such shows as "World's Funniest Hypnotist." Bad ideas like the Getty heist could give a black eye to the whole reality genre, he says, which he believes has a lot of quality entertainment life left in it, despite the "come-live-with-me" formats that are proliferating right now.
"A lot of people think we should come and live in their house because their parents are so funny," says Mr. Shotz. "We've turned them down," he says, but points to the new similarly themed ABC Family Channel show, "My Life Is a Sitcom," as proof that in TV, timing is everything.
"Survivor," the franchise that helped kick off the so-called "reality TV" craze some three years ago, made headlines when it showed some footage of a contestant who was badly burnt in an accident in the Australian outback. But producer Mark Burnett says his team has self-imposed limits and left some of the gruesome footage on the editing floor. The most recent series also did some editing in an episode in which one contestant urinated on the arm of another to alleviate the pain of a bug bite.
Mr. Burnett says the public will always be the final arbiter on what falls within the boundary of acceptable taste. "If the shows go too far and are too gross, they won't watch them," he says.
There are some dark corners of the unscripted genre that may never make it into the light of mainstream TV, despite a loyal audience, says another producer who has had people pitch the idea of airing fights in prisons. A variation of this theme called "Bum Fights," already has a thriving following on the Internet. "This is where they get these bums to fight each other for money and booze," he says, "it gets pretty raw, pretty fast."
But, says Natalka Znak, the creator of "Temptation Island" that pesky line of what is acceptable keeps moving. When she first pitched her show about a bunch of sexy singles in a tropical setting, the networks told her it was terrible and that viewers wouldn't accept it. Now, she says, it's deemed OK because expectations have changed.
However, she's fairly certain about one line that won't move. "Death," says Ms. Znak. "People don't want to watch that, because that's not what reality TV is about."