Television executives are concerned that audiences are being alienated by an overload of chat-show presenters with a taste for smut.
The latest crop includes Graham Norton, Jonathan Ross, Johnny Vaughan and Frank Skinner. All four have new shows, sparking a tussle that seems to be based on the premise that the future of the talk show lies in comedy.
Despite broadcasters' private worries over a chat-show glut, a Channel 4 spokesman confirmed yesterday that audiences are about to see a lot more of Norton. "We could well put him on three nights," he said, admitting that the channel must be careful not to "flog the show to death".
The BBC's Ross is head-to-head with Norton on Friday nights, but faring slightly worse in the ratings, while ITV's Skinner hosts a Saturday night chat show relying heavily on laddish jokes. Vaughan, who is recovering from the failure of his sitcom 'Orrible, is working on a new BBC chat show.
Addison Cresswell, Ross's executive producer, thinks Graham Norton three nights a week will prove too much. "When Jonathan Ross did three days a week at Channel 4 it was a disaster," he said. "You couldn't get enough guests." The same went for Jack Docherty who hosted a show every week night on Channel 5. Mr Addison added: "You saw the confidence draining out of his face."
Ross's chat show will stay at just one a week – though he has eight BBC shows on air this week alone, including a three-hour slot on Radio 2, several shows about kung fu for BBC Choice, and Film 2001 for BBC1.
The new shows feature the latest contestants for Michael Parkinson's title of King of the British chat show. But his executive producer, Beatrice Ballard, said: "Their programmes are completely different. They are comedy, not interviews. The object is to make the host look funny and use the guest as a foil for the gags." The others were not snapping up guests Parkinson might want. "They're lower down the food chain."
In ratings Parkinson stays a league apart. He regularly gets audiences of eight million and can win 45 per cent share of the total TV audience. By contrast, Ross and Norton tend to attract just three or four million viewers.
"I think Graham [Norton] works because he is less formulaic and more controversial than the others," said the Channel 4 spokesman.
Screen test – the interviewers go head-to-head
Jonathan Ross Friday, BBC1
Style: Smutty jokes, quick wit, loud clothes.
Who watches? A dangerously small après-pub audience.
Outlook: Reportedly told a national newspaper: "I think we're doomed to failure". BBC press people claim this was a joke.
Graham Norton Friday, Channel 4
Style: Extremely smutty jokes. Manages to be outrageously rude without upsetting guests or viewers.
Who watches? Loads of people. Attracts 4m viewers – huge by the standards of Channel 4.
Outlook: Set to go on, and on, and on. Hottest thing on TV.
Parkinson Saturday, BBC1
Style: Crinkly-eyed elder statesman of the chat show.
Who watches? Still pulls in the big guests and a classic Saturday night audience. Critics claim it's heading down-market.
Outlook: Vows to continue until he needs a stairlift on to the set.
Frank Skinner Saturday, ITV
Style: Scruffy, self-deprecating and obsessed with football.
Who watches? Pissed blokes. Even fewer women since his recent suggestion that females over 30 are past it.
Outlook: Tired format and old jokes don't seem to worry the execs.
Johnny Vaughan next year, BBC.
Style: Essex lad with a big mouth.
Who watches? No one yet knows – possibly no one. Aimed at the youth market.
Outlook: Huge success on The Big Breakfast with Denise Van Outen. Praying for a decent audience after failure of sitcom 'Orrible.Reuse content