The next 'Sopranos'? HBO taps Brit hit 'Ali G' to inject buzz into its new lineup

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Can a gangsta-rapper replace a gangster?

At the Television Critic's Association conference in Los Angeles this week, HBO will introduce a new lineup, including "The Ali G Show," a comedy chat program starring a faux gangsta-rapper from London. Ali G was a huge hit in the U.K. and is being brought in, according to executives with knowledge of the deal, to help build the next generation of buzz-worthy shows.

gangs of...hampstead

The HBO series will make its debut Feb. 21, said executives. Representatives at AOL Time Warner's HBO declined to discuss the show, and executives at Talkback Productions, which created the original series for Channel 4 in London, could not be reached.

Ali G is actually Sacha Baron Cohen, 30, a Cambridge-educated Jewish comedian who grew up in the tony suburb of Hampstead and created his rapper persona to spoof white hip-hop kids. Ali G is the leader of a fictional gang called the West Staines Massive.

As host of the raucous late-night talk show "The Ali G Show," he has interviewed politicians and celebrities, skewering them mercilessly, to the delight of his many fans. Virtually unknown in the states, Ali G has created his own pseudo hip-hop vocabulary ("Look at the batty on dat") that has caught on with Britain's youth.

He also has recorded music, including the single "Me Julie" with reggae star Shaggy. Last year, Ali G starred in a film "In Da House." The movie, however, bombed with fans and critics and his star has been on the wane in the U.K. Recently, the editor of influential black magazine Untold in London accused him of being a "racially insensitive" figure and the "new Al Jolson."

HBO hopes the show will be a new draw for the subscription cable network. With last season's mixed critical response to "The Sopranos," and with "Sex in the City" heading into a possible final season, the network wants a hit in the wings.

next generation

"They need to grow the next generation of buzz-worthy television shows," said Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming services at Aegis Group's Carat, who cautions, however, that Ali G may be "too hip for the room."

"We are relying too much on comedy and formats that are coming from across the pond," Ms. Brill, citing General Electric Co.'s NBC, which has acquired rights to "The Kumars at Number 42," a British comedy about an extended Asian/Indian family whose backyard doubles as a studio for a talk show hosted by one of the kids.

The U.S. version will feature a Mexican-American family, "The Ortegas."

"The Ali G Show" will be supported by aggressive offline and online advertising. The online push kicks off Jan. 27. Outdoor and print ads, along with on-air promotion, are in the works. Digital marketing and media is handled by EarthQuake Media, New York. Offline ads are from Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York.

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