The nationwide Escapade/Playboy R-rated cable television channel, with sexually oriented programs ranging from features with real life centerfolds to a game show in which losers strip to bikinis, can be viewed today for the first time in the Washington area by subscribers of Arlington Telecommunications Inc., an Arlington cable network.

More than 1,000 of 23,000 ARTEC subscribers have already paid an additional monthly fee to receive "sensuous and sexy" movies and a variety of other R-rated shows from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily. About 300 are scheduled to receive the channel today with its formal debut set for Sept. 8. The channel is a joint venture of Playboy and Rainbow Programming Service Inc.

Outraged critics, including the Northern Virginia Catholic diocese, say movies and an animated version of Playboy magazine is pornography that has no place in the home and is destructive of community morals.

"The diocese objects to [ARTEC] electing Playboy's Escapade channel," said diocese spokesperson Ellen M. McCloskey. "There is nothing soft about pornography . . . . There is no value to it whatsoever." The diocese, which covers 21 Northern Virginia counties, has launched an educational campaign against the channel.

"Value is in the eyes of the beholder," countered ARTEC executive vice president John D. Evans. "When persons have to pay for the service that is coming into their homes, it has to have value."

ARTEC began the channel to compete with other R-rated alternatives in the Washington area, such as Super TV, HBO and Cinemax, Evans said. About 88 percent of ARTEC subscribers already receive HBO and 22 percent receive Cinemax, ARTEC officials said. And an ARTEC survey showed that about a quarter of its subscribers were "very interested" in subscribing to the channel, according to an ARTEC press release.

"It is erotic," Evans said of the Escapade/Playboy channel. "But it is not pornography."

Upon request, ARTEC will provide citizens who pay an additional $15 with a special key for parents to use to exclude children from watching the channel unattended. However, ARTEC employes signing up subscribers do not volunteer information about it, Evans said.

But the key has not mollified channel opponents. "We can't afford this evil intrusion to come into our homes and make our children have a warped sense of their own purpose and value," the Rev. LeRoy H. Beuter of Faith Lutheran Church of Arlington wrote in a letter to the county board.

"People pick and choose what they want," Evans said. "We're not going to play censor as long as it's within community standards, which it is."

Unlike the movie industry, which has a formal body to rate film content, the Escapade/Playboy distributors determine that unrated programming is not the equivalent of X-rated programming, Evans said. He said all programming will conform to industry standards for R-rated material and that ARTEC will not broadcast X-rated material.

"It's the same kind of stuff that's in Playboy, and if you think it's pornography, maybe we're talking in different languages," said Playboy spokeswoman Susan Tash.

But channel opponents argue that there is no guarantee that the channel's material will not be X-rated and that harder and harder pornography is likely to be introduced on the channel. "I don't think they can keep it as 'light' as they are protesting it is 'light,' " said McCloskey.

Pornography aside, Evans has argued that ARTEC is protected by the rights of the free press. "We are basically video publishers," said Evans, " . . . and as such we are protected by the First Amendment."

The charge to subscribe to the Escapade/Playboy channel, which is available only to ARTEC subscribers, is $4.95 monthly for those with HBO or Cinemax, plus a $1 installation charge. It is $7.95 a month for those subscribers who do not have either HBO or Cinemax, plus a $7.50 installation charge.