TV shows have never shied away from trading on the sex appeal of their stars, but a quick look at the new fall season reveals that the overall TV landscape is about to get a whole lot sexier and more explicit. From the graphic grappling in HBO's new relationship drama, "Tell Me You Love Me," to the partner-swapping in CBS's "Swingtown," and the teen sex – including rape – of CW's "Gossip Girl," the sex is getting rawer and the camera ever closer.
This escalating emphasis on explicit scenes as well as themes is the result of seismic changes already rocking Hollywood and the larger society, say culture watchers: the competition for market share in a spiraling world of entertainment choices, the mainstreaming of pornography, and the explosive growth of an unregulated Internet.
Sexual mores are a good measure of social change, says Kevin Scott, coauthor of the upcoming Beacon Press book, "The Porning of America: Choosing Our Sexual Future." The combination of adult erotica moving onto Main Street America by the mid 1990s, along with the emergence of the Internet as a massive distribution network, has created what Mr. Scott calls a "perfect storm" of cultural change. "Our general view of sexuality today is so much broader than what it was just 15 years ago," he adds.
At the same time, the nation has grown more prurient, says trend tracker Michael Tchong, founder of Ubercool.com. We are becoming obsessive peepers, enamored of other people's privacy, says Mr. Tchong. Reality shows on television as well as the online social networking sites encourage increased engagement in the most intimate parts of other people's lives – many of them near-strangers. "It signals a huge shift," says Tchong, "a seismic change in the way we interact with others."
Hollywood has responded with such recent cult hits as "Sex and the City," a show which has spawned a slew of copycats this season. ABC's "Cashmere Mafia," about four ambitious Manhattan women comes from former "City" producer, Darren Star. "Big Shots" puts a male spin on the formula, starring a quartet of top TV leading men, including Dylan McDermott, kvetching about, and serially bedding, a stream of women. NBC debuts the Brooke Shields vehicle, "Lipstick Jungle," a gal-pal dramedy about New York City fashionistas.
Pay cable is making its mark, too. "Californication," a Showtime vehicle for David Duchovny, is about a sexually – and emotionally – itinerant novelist.
The influx of adult material on television is no surprise, considering how blurred the boundaries are becoming between traditional and new media, say most observers. "Viewers don't care anymore where the material comes from," says Paul Levinson, an author and media studies professor at Fordham University in New York. "All the various media are beginning to merge into a single screen," he says, adding that broadcast shows cannot compete with material on the Web. "The Internet offers extreme material. Audiences don't care where the programming comes from, so the networks have to adapt to keep up," says Mr. Levinson.
At the same time, the boundary-blurring has led filmmakers to embrace the small screen, bringing with them the more mature themes and adult concerns of the feature-film world. Network television now routinely features well-known people such as Ridley Scott, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Michael Apted – all filmmakers who expect much more creative freedom, says Bryan Greenberg, a former television-development executive. "It's become much cooler, much hipper to work in TV in the past few years," he adds.
Cynthia Mort, the creator and producer of "Tell Me You Love Me," says she is surprised by the dust-up over the program's sex scenes. The sexuality has never been gratuitous or exploitative, she says. "When I wrote the pilot," says Ms. Mort, "the sex was always in service of intimacy and in service of love." At the same time, she says she understands why people have pulled it out of context as the show hasn't aired yet. But this is precisely the kind of pre-show buzz that advertisers can't buy, points out Greenberg – something that HBO, a pay-cable channel, desperately needs as it navigates life after the end of its signature series, "The Sopranos." "Buzz is what it takes to set yourself apart in this crowded market," he adds.
Question of taste
But it is precisely this sort of artistic and marketing myopia that leads Hollywood into the missteps that seem to dog each development season, says Ted Baehr, critic and Chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission. The failure rate of new shows is extremely high, he points out. At a time when the film industry is discovering the power of family fare at the box office and forming new faith-based and family divisions, he says TV is heading into more graphic, extreme material that is alienating many viewers.
"The 150 million Americans who go to church don't want to see this kind of material," says the critic. Mr. Baehr says TV writers need to stop writing to impress their peers and pay more attention to normal, real people whose lives are not dominated by "kinky, sexual behavior."
In recent years, there have been calls to broaden the reach of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to monitor both the Internet and cable material. Sen. John (Jay) Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia, for example, promises to introduce a bill that would allow the FCC to curb violence on cable and satellite TV. But Congress has historically had limited ability to regulate cable programs because, unlike network shows, they aren't broadcast on publicly owned airwaves. Most observers say that such calls are just political saber-rattling as it would be difficult to craft regulations that wouldn't violate free-speech protections.
Ironically, says Greenberg, such posturing may actually be producing the opposite effect. "Threats of censorship may be emboldening cable programmers to flex their muscles a bit, to push the envelope to show how far they can go," he says.