Last Dec. 15, television executives sat around a table at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons and tried to talk hotel heiress Paris Hilton into moving to a farm in Arkansas for a fish-out-of-water reality show. ''It was an interesting sales pitch,'' recalls Mike Darnell, the Fox reality ringmaster behind ''Joe Millionaire.'' ''We just kept trying to convince her that it would be good for her. And by the end of the night, we did.''
Since then, Hilton hasn't exactly demonstrated expertise in what's good for her. After months of near-daily tabloid reports of her lip-locking, club fighting, and runway strutting, Hilton unintentionally joined the tabloid A list thanks to a videotape of her sexcapades with Rick Salomon (a.k.a. Shannen Doherty's ex) that makes Pamela and Tommy look like Mary and Dick.
Not that anyone will say something about anything. Since Hilton returned from Australia on Nov. 13 (where she was seen with ''Australian Idol'' reject Robert Mills), her family and the network have been in serious crisis-management mode. Hilton retained the services of spinmeister Dan Klores (who instructed her to cancel interviews). Darnell is also being fitted for a muzzle: During a phone interview, every time he began to comment on how the scandal may affect ''Simple Life'''s ratings, Fox corporate flack Scott Grogin interrupted with ''Stop talking, Michael!''
But Darnell doesn't need to say a whole lot. ''The Simple Life,'' which premieres Dec. 2, has gotten more publicity than 50 magazine covers could generate. ''People are fascinated by Paris because she's accessible and inaccessible at the same time,'' Darnell says. ''She's a celebrity and she hasn't even done anything yet.'' Of his casting prescience, he adds, ''Sometimes you can see the future and sometimes you just get lucky.''
Whether that fascination will make Hilton famous or notorious remains to be seen. ''It's human nature to want to put people down, but Paris and Nicole [Richie] were brave to do the show and we should be applauding them,'' says the show's exec producer Jonathan Murray (no stranger to scandal after producing 13 seasons of ''The Real World''). ''Paris has nothing to apologize for. Somehow, something private got out. It's not her fault. She's an adult and she should be able to have fun with her boyfriend.''
Though Hilton may go into hiding after this whole experience (yeah, right), Murray is already plotting a ''Simple'' sequel. ''We would love to do another season with Paris and Nicole. Paris is incredibly charismatic, and the two of them are very funny together,'' he says. ''We have scenarios we're thinking of, but first we have to see if the ratings live up to the hype.''
Darnell says there are ''no serious talks'' about another season, but he's confident in his show. ''There's an enormous amount of buzz following these girls and the show,'' he says. ''When something is gonna hit big, you just know it.''