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God lends a hand in daytime TV ratings war

IT'S BEEN a long wait under the heat of the studio lights but, at last, the host of America's newest daytime talk show emerges from behind the set. His guest is to be an adolescent girl and the topic is, "Why my mother is my worst enemy". Taping will start in a moment, but first he wants to meet us. He chats a while, before bowing his head and uttering a prayer. Finally, we join him in making the sign of the cross.

This is not the sort of audience warm-up you might expect for a programme that on other days has tackled such issues as homosexuality and oral sex and is competing with Jerry Springer and all the other shows in the "my- girlfriend-is-a-man" genre. But there is more: the host is Father Alberto Cutie and he is standing before us in a black suit and white dog-collar.

Call it an experiment in "confessional TV". For the past three months Spanish-speakers across the United States and a handful of countries in Latin America have been tuning in at 4pm every day to the Padre Alberto show. After an unsure start, its ratings are climbing and the network that owns it, Telemundo of Miami, thinks it has a winning formula.

Father Alberto, whose other job is preaching at St Patrick's church in Miami's South Beach district, was chosen for the job from 500 applicants around the world. It must have helped that he is 30 and handsome. (Some in his congregation have taken to calling him "cutie", especially since the network persuaded him to lose the side parting and brush his hair forward.)

First, the archdiocese of Miami had to give its blessing. According to its spokeswoman, Mary Ross Agosta, there was no hesitation. "The church is realising that we need to be accessible. We need to be where people are and with so many watching television this is a huge opportunity."

But a priest talking about oral sex? On TV? Even that doesn't seem to worry the church or Father Alberto's congregation, some of whom are in the studio. "These are the issues that priests have to deal with every day, either in one-on-one discussions or in the confessional. So why not on television?" asks Ms Agosta. Sandra Lagarde, who is from Uruguay and worships at St Patrick's, agrees. "That's life. It doesn't matter if you're a priest or not, these are things that happen to real people."

Today's subject is child abuse. The guest, who is 14 years old and accompanied by an aunt, describes years of cruelty from her mother, including long periods of being locked in a dark cupboard. As Father Alberto coaxes her worst memories from her, she suddenly crumbles into helpless weeping. Soon, most of the audience is sobbing with her.

Father Alberto concedes that the show owes its success primarily to the novelty of a priest tackling taboos on the tube. But he also believes that viewers see a priest as the natural choice to host such a show. "In Latin countries especially, people still look to their priests for guidance. Your priest is the first person you go to when you have problems or a crisis," he said in an interview.

He sees no conflict between his ministry and his new career. "I see this as part of my ministry. I don't sermonise and I'm not doing the catechism, but I feel I am doing something that is faithful to the church's teaching." He is also anxious to distinguish his programme from Jerry Springer's and others that "seek sensation and encourage guests to throw chairs at each other. We are trying to do this in a way that is classy and ends up edifying and helping people."

So far, he says, the pressures on the network to achieve ratings and his determination to "help and not to humiliate" have not collided. He concedes, however, that one day they might. "But if that happens and the show changes focus in that way, I'll be out of here." But for now, Father Cutie is America's latest Latin star. He is not Ricky Martin quite yet, even if the lady on my left surely thinks so. She is his mother. "Look at him. God put him on television."