<EM>Californication</EM> is among the new series pushing the envelope. Californication is among the new series pushing the envelope.

It's getting hotter... on TV. Several new cable shows are cranking their sex scenes up a notch, daring to bare more skin than viewers have been accustomed to seeing.

Leading the way is the new HBO series Tell Me You Love Me (premiering Sept. 9), which features Jane Alexander as a relationship therapist. The show has caused a stir because of the amount of full-frontal nudity and explicit sex acts among the three couples she counsels.

Showtime is moving the needle as well with the provocatively titled Californication (Mondays at 10 pm/ET). David Duchovny plays a debauched writer who spends much of the first episode in flagrante delicto.

Both pay-cable networks believe the eroticism is essential to the storytelling. Whether it's his character's drinking, drugging or sexual escapades, Duchovny says, "These are important things for the guy's state of mind and for the show. It's not done in a gratuitous fashion. It's part of the character.”

HBO president of entertainment Carolyn Strauss says her network's new series "is about the connection and disconnection of committed couples making their way. To remove the honesty of sexual interaction from the menu of choices in telling that story would be telling only half a tale.”

But even Showtime's entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt, who once produced Six Feet Under for HBO, is surprised at what he saw in Tell Me You Love Me. "Male genitalia has always sort of been the last taboo, and I think for good reason,” he says. "I really believe we can get to the point of a sex scene without having to show penetration or equipment.” Strauss argues that Greenblatt's thinking represents "a double standard as to what is acceptable to reveal of a woman's body versus a man's.”

Viewers can vote on how they feel by which pay services they order through their cable operators. As subscription services, HBO and Showtime are unfettered by advertiser sensitivity or FCC restrictions on what they can show. But outlets that do have those boundaries are getting more sexually adventurous as well. CBS' midseason series Swingtown is a period piece set in the 1970s that deals with open marriage. A clip of the pilot shown to advertisers last spring opened with a visual gag that at first glance looked like a flight attendant performing oral sex on an airline pilot. "I hope there are concerns about it, I really do,” says CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler. "We're going to push the envelope with that show.”

Ad-supported cable network TNT has never been known for its edginess. But it's getting noticed for Holly Hunter's portrayal of a hard-living detective who sleeps around on Saving Grace. Michael Wright, who oversees TNT's original programming, says today's audiences are demanding more realism in the characters. "You're in an era of television where those sorts of boundaries are being explored and being challenged, and there's a certain level of audience expectation about what you're bringing to them, especially on cable,” he said. "If you're going to tell your audience that this is an adult-themed, complex, progressive show, and you shy away from certain aspects of the character, I think you run into an authenticity problem.”

But sponsors concerned about wholesome environments for their messages will prevent broadcasters and ad-supported cable from getting as racy as HBO or Showtime. Broadcast networks are also reined in by the FCC. "I don't think any broadcast network is going to cross the line with nudity,” Greenblatt says. "They just can't, but they'll dance around the subject matter and there'll be more shows that go in that direction.”

For more on Saving Grace's frank sex scenes and to get the scoop on the new season of NCIS, pick up the Aug. 20 issue of TV Guide. Try four risk-free issues now!

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