Nightly Norton to lead Channel 4's chat show assault

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Channel 4 is pinning its hopes on stars of the sofa to beat the BBC's big hitters in the winter television ratings war.

Although it launched its winter season yesterday with some big-budget, upmarket programmes, such as a film on the Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton starring Kenneth Branagh, the broadcaster also said it would be putting the former ITV chat show hosts Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan on every afternoon at the same time as Anne Robinson's Weakest Link is shown on BBC2.

Graham Norton, who has a cult following for his risqué Friday night chat shows on Channel 4, would soon be promoted to a five-days-a-week slot, Channel 4 sources said. The last chat show to be given such regular screenings was the BBC's Wogan.

Although no formal announcement has been made yet about the channel's plans for Norton, last Friday he beat the much-hyped new Jonathan Ross chat show on BBC1 with 3.3 million viewers, compared with Ross's three million.

Ross was quoted in one newspaper yesterday giving an extraordinary thumbs-down to his own show. He said: "We've got another seven before Christmas and I think we're doomed to failure. I watched it and I didn't like it. If I was a viewer I wouldn't go back to it."

A BBC spokesman said: "These were tongue-in-cheek comments that are merely in keeping with the humour of his show. This was the first show in the series and we are confident that Jonathan's unique talent will see the show go from strength to strength."

But Norton's head-to-head victory last week will encourage Channel 4 in its plans to give his camp, provocative, but starry, chat show more outings. Even though he engages his guests in a chat of an extremely personal, often sexual, nature, the endearing humour with which he does so manages to attract big names such as the actresses Lynn Redgrave and Joan Collins. A spokeswoman would only say: "We are looking at a new type of show for Graham, a new type of format."

The BBC tried to poach Norton earlier this year for a sum of £5m over two years. But he remained loyal to Channel 4, signing a new deal for a lower sum, believed to be £3m. The BBC hoped that Ross's show, which is more risqué than most BBC chat shows, might capture Norton's 10.30pm audience.

The Richard and Judy show, which aired in the morning when on ITV, will go out at 5pm on weekdays against The Weakest Link, which regularly attracts four million viewers.

Jo McGrath, Channel 4's head of daytime programmes, said: "It's not about ratings, it's about providing the audience with an alternative. At that time of day all the other channels are running quizzes and soaps."

Channel 4's winter season will also mark the 30th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday", when British paratroops shot dead 13 Catholics during a civil rights march in Londonderry. Jimmy McGovern's new drama documentary, Sunday, recounts the events of that day and the subsequent inquiry. McGovern and a factual production team interviewed at first hand more than 100 people, including British soldiers, priests, politicians, journalists and the relatives of the dead and injured, in putting together their account.

Tim Gardam, Channel 4's director of programmes, said: "Channel 4 continues to offer the most ambitious and varied schedule of any broadcaster. Our goal remains programmes that make Channel 4 stand out from the digital crowd and I am proud that we can deliver such a broad and distinctive line-up of quality programmes at a time when commercial broadcasters are feeling the effects of an economic downturn."

In the latest burst of reality TV, Channel 4 has commissioned a live show called Eden. A group of contestants will try to survive in the Australian rainforest, with viewers deciding who takes part and interactively controlling every aspect of the game via the Eden website. Viewers can apply to be on the show during the series and each week the audience will nominate one person to join the group.