THE storm over Friday night's new late-night TV show, Hotel Babylon, though embarrassing for ITV, could not have come at a better time. A leaked fax from Heineken, the programme's sponsor, demanded that there should be more of its beer on the bar, and fewer blacks in the audience. At least that inspired people to tune in, if only to count the incidence of both: not much of the former but a lot of the latter.
Until then, last week's launch of the new night-time mini-network by nine of the 15 regional ITV companies had scarcely gripped the public's imagination. The bid to persuade people to keep the set switched on at the end of News at Ten, and to stay tuned after midnight, had gone largely unnoticed.
At present audiences fall away rapidly after 10.30, when national ITV networking ends and the regional companies devise their own schedules.
From the 20 million-plus likely to be watching all channels during prime time, the number falls to around eight million in the half hour before midnight and to below two million by 1.30, after which insomniacs and night workers predominate.
Worse, ITV's share of this dwindling audience drops after the news, from an average of 36 per cent earlier to 28 per cent by 1.30, when only half a million people are tuned to ITV. So the nine regional companies set up an eight-person editorial board to commission new programmes for night owls, Hotel Babylon among them. Rod Henwood, managing director of Central, is one of the eight board members.
"We used to have predominantly music and showbiz-based output at these times that was cheap and cheerful," he explains. "We thought we could generate a more appealing service and some sponsorship income."
The new programmes are just as cheap as the old ones - the average cost of pounds 8,000 per hour has not been increased - but are less noisily cheerful. Out goes heavy metal, in comes heavy introspection, leavened by a fashionably frank approach to gender. The chief ingredient is chat, especially about sex and personal issues.
This "television with attitude" is what young Heineken drinkers are presumed to lap up. On the first Hotel Babylon, much of the attitude was supplied by La Toya Jackson, who, coiled in a pet snake, confided in the presenter Dani Behr about her visit to a sperm bank.
This is an "advertiser supplied programme", which goes one degree beyond sponsorship: it means that Heineken have direct contact with the producers, Bob Geldof's Planet 24. The ITV companies that screen it remain responsible for enforcing the Independent Television Commission's requirement that no "undue prominence" should be given to the sponsor's products. They need not have worried. Apart from brief credits at the beginning and end, Heineken were nowhere in evidence, even in the commercial breaks. No wonder their sponsorship department was angry.
Hotel Babylon is followed on Fridays by The Good Sex Guide . . . Late, in which Toyah Willcox hosts a low-key version of those self-revelatory talk shows pioneered in the United States, last week featuring a man being smothered with chocolate. On Saturdays comes Pyjama Party, in which young women in frilly nightwear try to recreate their conspiratorial teenage years. The programme's presenter and creator, Katie Puckrick, insists that not all the confidences exchanged will be about sex, but don't bank on it. Wednesdays offer Dear Nick, an agony uncle: last week he covered body piercing, this week it's losing your virginity.
"We conducted extensive research into the numbers of people viewing and their attitude to the night-time services around," says Mr Henwood. "The research showed that identifying the night-time audience wasn't just a question of making generalisations about age but looking at people's lifestyles. Pyjama Party and the other youth-oriented programmes we're showing are not just for 16 to 24-year-olds, but are likely to be watchable by an older audience as well."
This may excuse the presence of Bruce Forsyth in a commercial during Hotel Babylon, but older folk watching are still made to feel voyeurs rather than viewers. Both Ms Puckrick and Ms Behr are blonde twentysomething graduates from The Word, Channel 4's archetypal sex-'n'-music youth programme - also made by Planet 24 - that went off the air last April, after complaints about its breaches of taste guidelines.
Channel 4, keen to keep its lead in this field, plans a fresh assault on the Friday pre-midnight hour later this month with The Girlie Show, like Pyjama Party but with buttons undone. It will have a trio of presenters: the bisexual American super-model Rachel Williams, a 21-year-old newcomer from Bolton called Sally Cox and Clare Gorham, a black journalist.
"In concept it's the flip side of laddish culture," enthuses Greg Day, Channel 4's spokesman on youth programming. "It reflects the changing tastes and habits of young women. Rachel Williams is very much the in- your-face type of presenter who will add an aggressive attitude." The programme will be pre-recorded, to avoid the regulatory problems experienced by The Word.
Regular features of The Girlie Show will include Readers' Husbands, in which viewers will be invited to submit photographs of their partners, says Mr Day. "Not indecent, but doing something like wearing a leotard jockstrap and looking a complete idiot."
Another segment will be Toilet Talk, fly-on-the-wall coverage of what women say about boyfriends in the loo.
Men will no doubt watch, but for masochistic reasons. The climax will come when the presenters each nominate their Wanker of the Week. If the programme had already started, this week's odds-on favourite would be Justus Kos, Heineken's in-your-fax head of sponsorship.
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