Sex on TV

If sex sells, TV programmers are adding inventory to an already humongous sale.

Viewers are about to see full-frontal male nudity, heterosexual, homosexual and group sex, and graphic scenes rarely — if ever — seen on mainstream TV. And that’s just on pay-cable Starz’s fornication-heavy, 13-episode Spartacus: Blood and Sand (premieres Friday, 10 ET/PT), a 300-meets-Caligula epic about the Roman Empire‘s notorious slave/gladiator.

MTV plans a June launch of The Hard Times of RJ Berger, a scripted comedy about a nerdy 15-year-old whose cool quotient heats up when his anatomical gift is accidentally exposed. And basic-cable network Spike’s just-launched raunchy college-sports comedy Blue Mountain State (Tuesdays, 10 ET/PT) showed a masturbating school mascot on the Jan. 12 premiere, while last night’s episode featured a scene suggesting oral sex between a coed and jock before the opening credits.

“You need to get eyeballs. You need to be loud,” says Spike programming chief Kevin Kay, who is pairing Blue Mountain with reruns of HBO‘s sex-centric Entourage. “Our viewers are experiencing content on other cable channels or the Web. Movies and video games are going after this audience, too.”

TV’s latest sexually charged offerings add to the current wave of attention-seeking — if less visually explicit — reality and scripted programs filled with frank themes and content, such as MTV’s hookup-focused reality hit Jersey Shore.{loadposition in-article}

ABC’s Cougar Town — which had a memorable scene that implied Courteney Cox‘s character administering oral sex to her date — premiered last fall. Also new in the past year: HBO’s Hung, a dramedy about a well-endowed teacher moonlighting as a prostitute; National Geographic TV’s adult-themed documentary series, Taboo; and VH1’s titillating Sex Rehab With Dr. Drew.

“You can definitely see an arms race,” says FX programming chief John Landgraf, whose groundbreaking series such as Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck set new standards for mature content on basic cable.

Established shows are amping up, too. Nip/Tuck is wrapping its sixth and final season with boundary-pushing themes centered on its often sexually compulsive plastic surgeons, and ABC’s Desperate Housewives has cast former Dexter star Julie Benz as a stripper for the series’ fifth season.

Showtime’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl returns Monday with hooker Belle (Billie Piper) looking for source material for another book through new sexual experiences with clients.

Showtime’s aptly titled Californication recently ended its third season with sex-addicted Hank Moody (David Duchovny) getting more booty than ever — juggling three women while pursuing a fourth. Moody’s best friend and manager (Evan Handler) grappled with an ex-wife and randy boss (Kathleen Turner), while guest star Rick Springfield, playing himself, had several solo and group conquests.

A long history

The subject of sex has been part of the medium almost since its start. But displays of sex, intimacy and even body parts, for the most part, have been evolutionary, not revolutionary.

In the 1950s, TV couldn’t show married couples sleeping in the same bed. In the ’60s, exposing the bellybutton of I Dream of Jeannie‘s Barbara Eden was verboten. Braless jiggles on Charlie’s Angels were considered daring in the ’70s. But by the ’90s, the expanse of adult-themed content on premium channels such as HBO and sex-infused music videos on MTV made baring the derriere of a hefty NYPD Blue cop acceptable to the masses on ABC.

“It’s funny what’s considered risqué these days,” says Audrey Landers, whose sexpot image, burnished by eight seasons on ’80s hit Dallas, led to a Playboy pictorial in 1983. Last year, the actress, singer and fashion designer was developing a cable reality show, which was rejected for its tameness. “They suggested my mother, 18-year-old niece and I sex things up by posing for Playboy,” says Landers, 53.

Critics such as the Parents Television Council decry the mushrooming sexual content. “It’s become downright ubiquitous,” says council president Tim Winter. “Families are under siege, teenage girls are under siege. You don’t know what the cultural impact will be down the road.”

Others, such as Fordham University media observer Paul Levinson, say TV merely mirrors life. “It sounds radical, but this is healthy for popular culture,” Levinson says. “Mainstream TV has been frozen in a very puritanical position by Congress, the FCC and the Supreme Court — all who don’t seem to understand the First Amendment. Sex is part of life. If people are offended, there’s a simple remedy: Don’t watch.”

Taste standards and broadcast guidelines aside, sexual content — and where to push boundaries — is largely established by programmers seeking traction among fickle viewers, then benchmarked by others who want to push the envelope.

“When advertising dollars are down you have to cut through — you have to get attention,” says JD Roth, producer of NBC reality hit The Biggest Loser.

ABC programming chief Steve McPherson says he has faced no pressure to edge up content but acknowledges late prime-time slots offer opportunities. “If you can get a loud broadcast-acceptable 10 p.m. show, it’s a time to take chances,” McPherson says.

Moreover, broadcast executives acknowledge that premium-channel and basic-cable-channel rivals are altering the TV landscape.

“We don’t want to be out of touch with the way society is going,” says NBC’s Angela Bromstad. “At the same time, you have to be careful what you put on air.”

Says Doug Herzog, president of MTV Networks entertainment group: “The line moves every day, so you got to move with it. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

‘Spartacus’: Roman hands

Initially pitched to NBC in tamer form, Spartacus: Blood and Sand oozes explicit content.

“The whole thing was pushing the boundaries on pretty much every level,” says co-executive producer Robert Tapert, who is married to Spartacus star Lucy Lawless. “Once we wound up on (premium pay cable), we were able to really push the envelope.”

Lawless portrays a conniving social climber who is nude in some scenes, commits adultery in others and uses sex to manipulate frenemies and family. One episode shows Lawless’ character and her gladiator-camp-owner husband (John Hannah) manually stimulated by slaves before having sex. Upcoming episodes feature orgies and a gladiator whose large endowment ultimately leads to his downfall.

Noting the potentially off-putting content, the former Xena: Warrior Princess star concedes Spartacus isn’t for everyone: “Pretty quickly, the audience has to realize they aren’t in Kansas anymore. There will be (viewers) who are truly horrified and switch this off.”

Of course, Starz executives hope for the opposite effect, and they believe Spartacus‘ underlying sex-and-gore themes will be provocative attention-grabbing devices to bolster viewership. They’ve already ordered a second season.

“People are going to stop in their tracks and say, ‘Wow, that’s something really different’ — whether they approve of it or not,” says Starz programming chief Stephan Shelanski. Starz is comfortable with content such as full-frontal male nudity because it has become more explicit in theatrical releases that eventually arrive on premium cable, such asBorat and Sex and the City , and on premium-cable originals such as HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me.

Ironically, Showtime (The L Word , The Tudors , Weeds ) and FX, whose programming helped pave the way for harder-content offerings on rival networks, say they’re pulling back on sexually provocative shows and stories.

“In terms of edginess, our content is less edgy today,” Landgraf says. “Nip/Tuck is the edgiest show we’ve ever had, and we just haven’t found a program to replace it with. Sons of Anarchy is less edgy than The Shield. At the end of the day, what makes a show like The Shield work is the quality from a storytelling standpoint. You watch because it’s compelling, because it’s good.”

Says Showtime’s Bob Greenblatt: “We’re not trying to do things just to get attention and sell subscriptions. I’d say the network is a lot less sexy than it used to be. There’s very little on United States of Tara, Nurse Jackie and Dexter. For me, its really just about having the freedom to go to those places if the stories and characters demand it.”

‘Natural evolution of things’

Californication creator Tom Kapinos says there’ll be consequences for the central character’s sexual rambunctiousness next season, and perhaps more of an attempt to keep his pants zipped. “I don’t know how much further you can push things,” Kapinos says. “But this is still a show about a single guy in L.A. There’s a lot of trouble to get into.”

Greenblatt notes Spartacus could raise the bar — or lower it — when it comes to both the pervasiveness and explicitness of TV sex. “I’m sure after Spartacus, there’ll be more,” he says. “It’s the natural evolution of things.”

Blue Mountain State producer Brian Robbins, whose credits include Smallville and One Tree Hill, says he’s not surprised by the explicit sex on air these days.

The irony isn’t lost on Robbins, perhaps best known as the long-haired lothario Eric Mardian on ABC’s ’80s sitcom Head of the Class. “I was the stud on that show, but I didn’t get to do anything,” Robbins says. These days, “anything goes.”

And as far as Blue Mountain State? Says Robbins: “I’d be way too embarrassed to sit in a room with my mother watching it.”

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