A self-described former hippie from Berkeley who came to Hollywood to peddle sex and vanity for a living, producer Mike Fleiss seemed finished after producing the 2000 debacle ''Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?'' for Fox. But like steam rising off ''The Bachelor'''s Jacuzzi, his career is hot again. ''Are You Hot?'' is just one of a bevy of Fleiss' beauts that struggling ABC (the family network!) hopes will generate some ratings friction: A new ''Bachelor'' (featuring a hunk ''from one of America's most affluent and prominent families'') debuts March 26, and ''The Will,'' featuring feuding heirs, bows this summer. ''If you took this stuff off the air, viewers would freak out,'' insists Fleiss, who talked to Entertainment Weekly about prime-time reality, grumpy critics, and the right to wear thongs on TV.
Were you persona non grata in Hollywood after ''Multi-Millionaire''?
I was so radioactive that no one would publicly embrace me, but I still got calls from network presidents saying they thought the show was the best they'd ever seen. Within a month, I'd sold two shows to Fox.
Is there any show you wouldn't produce?
One that was boring or dull or violent.
But sex is okay?
I like sex. There is way too much violence on TV compared to the amount of sex. I'm doing ''Are You Hot?'' now and battling with the network to allow the contestants to wear thongs because that's what women wear.
Did you do ''The Bachelorette'' to quiet down critics who complained that ''The Bachelor'' was sexist?
I did it because ABC wanted it, but I didn't think guys would watch. One day we were taping ''The Bachelorette'' and I was up at the guys' house watching the dudes, when all of a sudden there were five of them in the hot tub. I thought, This is wrong. Wrong in the wrong way.
Do you think people will tire of reality anytime soon?
No. Shows like ''The Bachelor'' make network television relevant. What I hate to see are knockoffs. I'd really like to see some of those crappy reality shows fail.
Like, say, ''Fear Factor''?
That show is the most purely degrading thing on TV. They're eating a horse's ass for only $50,000.
But would you produce it?
Yeah, but I'd give a bigger prize.
How do you address the criticism that reality shows aren't very, well, real?
Come on. None of it's real. What you're doing is setting up a ridiculous, contrived situation and then setting that in motion. Then what happens after that is, hopefully, real.
How do you handle it when things don't go the way you want them to?
Initially I was freaked out when Alex, the first Bachelor, wasn't going to propose. It was unsettling, but ultimately the viewers liked watching Alex's stress when he didn't make that total commitment. It's good that I decided to embrace the reality of that situation.