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Geldofs try to spice up breakfast TV

IF YOU have been having sleepless nights wondering what is the Dalai Lama's attitude on masturbation, help, as it were, is at hand. On Tuesday week, Channel 4's new early-morning television service, called The Big Breakfast Show, starts transmission. Part of it will be a pre-recorded interview by Bob Geldof. One of his first interviewees is the spiritual leader of Tibet's Bhuddists, shortly to be followed by Nelson Mandela.

'The Dalai Lama may be a living god,' the founder of Band Aid explained. 'But I can exclusively reveal that God, too, has his moral ambiguities. One of the first questions I asked him was what he thought about wanking.'

'There's nothing standard about our show,' he added. 'There's no jumpers or sofas. The brief is to give Channel 4 an identity and bring people in to watch it. And I honestly think we'll manage it.'

Geldof and his team need to. On their shoulders ride much of the future success of Channel 4. The present incumbent of the station's breakfast-time output, the Channel 4 Daily, attracts as few as 150,000 viewers. The show, with its business news segments from Tokyo and Washington, is, according to someone who worked on it, 'a masterpiece of unwatchable television'.

In January the complicated arrangement by which Channel 4 is subsidised will end and it will become self-financing. Last year, TV-am, which sold Channel 4's breakfast-slot advertising on its behalf, accrued pounds 9.3million. TV-am's subscription to Channel 4 was pounds 14.4m. Michael Grade, the station Chief Executive desperately needs to plug that gap. What he needs is viewers, because with viewers comes advertising revenue.

And so he has turned to Geldof. Or rather he has turned to Geldof's company, Planet 24 Productions (when his first interview is broadcast Bob himself will be in Europe, embarking on a 60-night concert tour 'which, contrary to popular belief, is what I do all the time'). Geldof's partner in the enterprise is Charlie Parsons, the producer behind such Channel 4 shows as Network 7, Club X and The Word.

'All eyes will be on us when the show starts,' said Parsons. 'The pressure will be much greater than for an ordinary programme because there will be no chance to fail. Though it could be seen that we are on to a winner because it would be very hard to decrease the viewing figures.'

Parsons, Geldof and their team won the pounds 10m contract against fierce competition from established media houses.

'It came up at a board meeting that the breakfast thing was on offer,' recalled Geldof. 'Someone said let's take a flyer and apply. I said we don't stand a prayer, but then we said, bollocks, let's stick in a proposal.'

The format of the show has not altered much in the progression from proposal through pilot to finished product. While The Channel 4 Daily was informative, The Big Breakfast will be almost anything but.

'The audience that the Daily tried to attract with an impressive news service was already well served by the radio and by the BBC's Breakfast Time. That was their mistake,' said Parsons. 'Apart from a quick update every 20 minutes, we will concentrate on entertaining.'

Instead of the American sofa-and-chat format favoured by TV-am and, all leaks indicate, its successor GMTV, Parsons has borrowed an idea from radio. Anchored by Chris Evans, the former GLR disc-jockey, the show will have a 'zoo-radio' format, in which everyone, from cameraman to passing cleaners will be allowed to have a say.

After some highly publicised attempts to buy premises in Highgate the company settled on three Victorian lockkeepers' cottages in the East End. Here Chris Evans will hold court, making his guests do forfeits if they plug their books.

Instead of cueing records, as he might on the radio, Evans will link Geldof's interviews with old children's shows like The Banana Splits and items such as The People Report, in which viewers will air their gripes on anything from British Telecom to dog mess in the park.

Each segment will come from a different room in the house. Cue Paula, in which Paula Yates, Geldof's wife, will conduct interviews, will come, inevitably, from the bedroom. Arnie Schwarzenegger and Barbara Cartland are scheduled to pass through her boudoir in the first few weeks.

However, one thing that Mentorn, the company which produced segments for The Channel 4 Daily, learnt, is that the viewer's tolerance over their cornflakes is uniquely low.

'You can't show certain film-clips you could in the evening, you can't show violence,' said a Mentorn insider. 'And robust language is a complete no-no.'

It is perhaps as well that Geldof's contribution will be edited. Chris Evans, though, frequently went close to the knuckle on his popular GLR shows, and Parsons's track-record suggests a working method prepared to shock first and suffer the consequences afterwards.

But, more worryingly for Parsons and Geldof, there is a school of thought which suggests that even if they screened naked mud-wrestling every morning, nobody would watch.

'Breakfast time is just not a viewing time for Channel 4 people,' said a shell-shocked former employee. 'And even if they are appealing to a down-market, non-Channel 4 audience, getting them to turn the dial is one hell of a quantum leap.'

Geldof remains sanguine about the prospects. 'Who knows if anyone will watch, maybe I'm crap, I don't know,' he said. 'All I can say is it will be worth a look.'

(Photographs omitted)