A flop of a show, but don't write off Davina

McCall is famous for 'Big Brother', but its basic cruelty has made life tricky for chat show hosts - like herself
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When the BBC lavished a reported £1m fee on luring Big Brother presenter Davina McCall to host a new midweek chat show on BBC 1, there were protests about dumbing down. But nobody predicted abject failure.

With her eponymous show, Davina vowed to bring "Saturday night sparkle" to Wednesday nights and, with guests such as Jordan, popularity seemed plausible. Since then, viewing figures have plummeted from 3.5 million to 2.3 million. Last month she was beaten in the viewing stakes by a documentary about the search for a priest for the Isles of Scilly.

Davina has not been told if she will be axed at the end of her run this week. Her agent, John Noel, acknowledges she has been "hurt by the criticism" but insists Davina, who is pregnant, would do a second series if asked. The BBC says: "No decision has been taken."

The word in the trade is not particularly supportive. Speaking on ITV last month, fellow BBC chat show host Jonathan Ross said: "I don't think it's the best-produced show and I don't think they've thought about her strengths ... I also get the feeling that some of the guests that she has on she's not as interested in as she might be."

On his show, Ross explained, "We don't tend to book guests unless I think I can have fun with them and I have something to ask them. The thing we say in the office is: 'Do people want to see that person interviewed, and what would they like to hear that person talk about?' If you can't come up with something, you've booked the wrong person."

Ross identified the key ingredients of a successful chat show: A-list guests, good subject matter and an excellent interviewer. A BBC source says: "Jonathan works because he sounds as if he is chatting with friends. He is tremendously well connected. Viewers think they are getting privileged access to a really juicy, private conversation."

Ross avoided saying that, in McCall's case, the "wrong person" may be Davina herself. Universally described as "bubbly", she has no track record as an interviewer. Shortly before her show was launched, she outlined her intended technique: "I'll probably touch people more than Parky does, lean forward more, especially if they're handsome men! I'll say, 'George', as I touch George Clooney's knee, 'tell me about your new film'." Her mention of Parkinson is revealing.

Parky is the reigning king of chat. But sceptics say his reputation owes more to his original BBC show than to recent shows. After vast success between 1971 and 1982 he was absent until 1995. Then, following a late-night series in which he introduced highlights from his original shows, Parkinson was relaunched in its original format in January 1998. It was a hit and explains the BBC's hunger for a replacement when scheduling concerns prompted Parky to defect to ITV.

Commissioners say the mainstream chat show has been in decline since 1992. Ten years ago, when the BBC relaunched his career with Pick of Parky, Parkinson spoke about the limitations of the genre. "It's an act between two consenting adults in public. Now, within that, you can develop a professional relationship, which is all it is. You can get close, but not closer. You're not carrying out a postmortem on somebody."

The worry now is that viewers get so much intimate access on shows such as Big Brother that simple interview formats look dated. Davina McCall's supporters say she is a victim of that perception. One says: "Big Brother has made cruelty on television acceptable. Against that it is hard for straight chat to thrive."

A McCall supporter says: "Parkinson is not delivering what he used to and Jonathan Ross only got 3.1 million last week. We are not happy with the non-delivery of guests or with the slot, but you don't get success overnight." That might sound like brave corporate-speak in defence of a show that is dead in the water, but there's good reason to think Davina, the show, is not doomed after all, whatever chat show trends may suggest.

Davina's following is predominantly among those aged 16 to 35. They know she's a catch, and that she's in big demand by other TV companies. To throw in the towel now would be to waste a precious asset. Her Wednesday night slot has not worked - but watch this space. Her contract will be discussed in July. Davina is likely to pick up more viewers later in the evening - when her fans get home from the pub.