Media: In search of youth heroes for the video cult: The woman who brought the computer-game craze to TV is launching a daily show on satellite. Martin Rosenbaum peers into 'The Game Zone'

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The Independent Online
JANE HEWLAND is hoping to use the power of television to create a new set of youth heroes. She will crown the most agile-fingered, quick-reacting youngsters she can find as Britain's video-game champions. And in doing so she will generate essential publicity for BSkyB's next attempt to ride a youth-culture bandwagon.

Once head of current affairs at London Weekend Television, and now an independent producer, Ms Hewland has been responsible for bringing the video-game craze to popular television through Gamesmaster, her cult programme for Channel 4. The success of the Thursday evening half-hour show has brought ratings of more than 3 million, and a second series. From next week her company, Hewland International, will produce a half-hour programme for Sky One, five nights a week. The Game Zone's highlights will include championship bouts between the country's best players.

'There's a whole plethora of competitions at the moment,' says Ms Newland, 'but they don't have official standing. It's worse than boxing. We've got to create the real champions, who will be champions because we say they are. The best games players are not famous now, but they will be by the time we've finished.'

The booming video-game industry is worth pounds 500m a year, more than half the amount the nation spends on toys. Not surprisingly, BSkyB has concluded that it cannot afford to ignore this current teenage obsession. The satellite company has already done well out of youthful cults such as The Simpsons and the World Wrestling Federation. And the demographics match: video games are most popular among the C2 families with children who are also most likely to own satellite dishes. What has raised eyebrows is Sky One's decision that the target audience is so large that it will run the new programme every weekday evening.

This requires great inventiveness if the audience is to be held. Ms Hewland's solution is to give different themes to the days of the week. While Mondays and Fridays will be 'fight nights' involving championship bouts, the other programmes will feature reviews of new products, a 'games doctor' dispensing advice to desperate players, and a live interactive show in which viewers will play games through videophones.

The Game Zone will also draw on two other factors that have helped to make Gamesmaster a success. The first is the advisory role played by Ms Hewland's 13-year-old son, Harry, who with his friends vets proposed programme content. The second is an understanding of how to make video games into exciting television. Ms Hewland says: 'The games are fine when you can interact with them, but they are not fun just to watch. To make them work on television you have to introduce the human element.

'For every night of The Game Zone we are thinking about how to make it interesting in a human way. So on the live night the public will play the games, and the review night will involve voting, as on Juke Box Jury.'

Similarly, Gamesmaster is based on challenges involving viewers, and contests with sports celebrities playing computer versions of their own sport, such as football or snooker. Its success has led to several money-spinning sidelines. The 'Gamesmaster Live' show in December at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham was attended by more than 80,000 people; a monthly magazine with the name has been launched by Future Publishing with an initial print run of 350,000; and Comet has been licensed to introduce 'Gamesmaster Zones' in 300 stores where customers will be able to try out games.

Ms Hewland says: 'It has proved to be a much bigger business than we thought. This has dangers, as it could implode, but the money's there to be made now. The business arrangements are so much more favourable than being one of 900 independent producers negotiating with a few broadcasters.'

The producer of Gamesmaster has become a spokesperson for the games world. Manufacturers even left it to Ms Hewland and her son to defend the industry against charges that its products are addictive, violent and alienating, in a recent edition of the audience discussion programme Central Weekend Live.

If Channel 4 commissions a third series then Ms Hewland can look forward to an interesting problem of success: her two shows could be head-to- head against each other.