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King of the Lads battles to save the 'Ginger Effect'

IF YOU see Chris Evans this morning, be gentle. He may be nursing a multi-million pound hangover. The most famous redhead in the country was recently found slumped in a Soho doorway, to the delight of the national press but to nobody's great surprise.

What else should we expect from the King of the Lads, the DJ-turned-media- tycoon whose binges with the likes of Paul Gascoigne and the Gallagher brothers are legendary? The trouble is that such pranks could cost the would-be media tycoon a fortune in lost revenue.

Mr Evans has been sounding out the City about selling shares in his Ginger Media Group, valued at pounds 150m. The company is responsible for his Channel 4 programme TFI Friday and the breakfast show he presents on Virgin Radio, which it owns.

Everything depends on our loving Mr Evans. Ginger's profits are generated by ratings and the premiums advertisers are prepared to pay to be associated with the star. They will last only as long as "the Ginger Effect" - the perception that he is a hip role model for a devoted audience of fashionable young people with money to burn.

Unfortunately, there are signs that those who once worshipped Mr Evans have grown up and gone off him. Lads are passe now. Falling down drunk is out. So is wearing sunglasses after dark, as Mr Evans was when a taxi driver discovered him tired and emotional in Brewer Street earlier this month, with a gash on his arm from broken glass.

It is as though the nation has woken up in bed next to Mr Evans and noticed that last night's dream lover is ginger, weedy and in love with himself.

In April, researchers revealed that young viewers regarded TFI Friday as "naff", comparing it to Blind Date and Noel's House Party. "My dad watches it," said one respondent, while others thought the show was a vehicle for Mr Evans' ego, whichhadn't changed in two years. They damned it as television to do your ironing to.

More recently, a nationwide survey of viewers over the age of 15 found that Mr Evans was the most annoying person on TV, and TFI Friday came third in the poll for "programme you'd most like to see off the air".

Last Thursday, The Stage carried a story suggesting that senior executives at Ginger had discussed hiring a new "A-list" presenter to replace or work with Mr Evans on TFI Friday. It currently gets fewer viewers than Pet Rescue. Meanwhile, Ginger is developing vehicles for other presenters, including a Saturday tea-time show that will star Lulu.

Until now Mr Evans has been able to ignore such bad publicity, but its effects will begin to bite as the autumn approaches and advertising agencies consider where to spend their money in 2000.

In the first full year of Evans' reign Virgin took pounds 27.836m in advertising. That was up pounds 6.8m, an increase of 33 per cent. However, revenue across the commercial radio market as a whole only increased by 18 per cent - a sign that advertisers were prepared to pay more than the going rate to share airtime with the DJ.

If the Ginger Effect is now less potent - or even working in reverse - it could cost Virgin at least pounds 3m.

That will not gladden the hearts of bankers, whose response to the prospective flotation has been cool, despite expected profits of pounds 15m. Money raised by selling shares would be used to buy media businesses aimed at men aged between 20 and 44. Investors, however, will be wary if they think the target audience has gone off Mr Evans.

The DJ grew up on a council estate in Warrington, Cheshire, but now owns a pounds 750,000 apartment in Knightsbridge near Lady Helen Taylor. Earlier this year he blew pounds 1,200 drinking champagne at a lap-dancing club.

While there are no signs of imminent collapse in the empire he is unlikely to listen to any advice about his image - but if he wants to go on living such a high life it may be time to wake up and smell the coffee.