The Biz: Ali G brings flava to HBO late night

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Who is Ali G? If you don't know, ask a 20-something guy.

The self-styled hip-hop provocateur/journalist, who last month made his U.S. debut on HBO's "Da Ali G Show," has a new twist on late-night chat. The audacious premise of Ali G, the gold-chain-wearing alter ego of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, revolves around pseudo-serious interviews with public figures such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and Boutrous Boutrous Ghali, the former secretary general of the United Nations.

Ali G sabotages his unsuspecting guests with naive questions and comments. He asks Ghali, "Is Disneyland a member of the United Nations?" But will this 30-year-old British import have staying power once high-profile guests get a line on his schtick?

How long Ali G's moment lasts will depend on his core audience. Online chat boards reveal mostly positive comments among Ali G's 18-to-34-year-old male target. TV and media pundits have chimed in with mostly positive reviews on the rapper's antics with the exception of Tom Shales of The Washington Post, who lambasted Ali G's duping guests. HBO and Ali G's production company won't disclose how guests are secured, and it remains to be seen whether Ali G can wrangle guests once their public relations folks know the score.

"We're pretty pleased with the way the show is going and with the whole Friday late-night block," says Cindy Matero, HBO's director-advertising. Halfway through its six-week run, Matero says HBO will rerun the series on Sunday at 11 p.m. starting April 6. There's no word on whether it plans to re-up the series.

"Da Ali G Show" racked up 945,000 U.S. TV households, according to data from Nielsen Media Research for the week of Feb. 24-March 2. HBO hit shows "Six Feet Under" had 3.7 million households and "The Sopranos" had 2.3 million for the same period. In the chat zone, "Real Time With Bill Maher," which leads into Ali G on Fridays at 11:30 p.m., scored 1.1 million households. Still, the biggest late-night audiences feed on broadcast fare-NBC's Conan O'Brien airing five days a week at 12:30 a.m. achieved 2.1 million households in the same period, while CBS' Craig Kilborn drew 1.5 million.

unique case

While HBO has used integrated promotions and marketing successfully in the past, hyping Ali G proved a unique case. "We came at this with a challenge to market a character that was new to the U.S.," Matero says. And the biggest challenge was reaching the series' core target-18-to-24-year-olds. HBO decided not to flag any of the guests in its promotion because focus groups revealed that young men didn't know who they were. Not that it matters: "It's really the way that Ali G interacts with the guests" that's amusing to the audience, says Jes Santoro, VP-director, integrated media, EarthQuake Media, New York, which handled online media buying, planning and strategy with Glow Interactive, New York.

HBO created an online teaser campaign that sent people to a "WhoIsAliG.com" Web site via ads and page takeovers on music and gaming sites two weeks prior to the series' Feb. 21 debut. Ads appeared in magazines like Dennis Publishing's Blender, Emap USA's FHM and Miller Publishing's Spin. Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York, handled offline advertising; sibling OMD coordinated media buying and planning.

The Web site featured a music mixer, e-postcards, a translator for Ali G-isms, video clips, photos and news from the Ali G Limo Tour. The Tour, organized by Grand Central Marketing, New York, hit snowboarding, surfing and ski events to hype the series. The site had 730,294 visitors from Jan. 27-Feb. 21, according to EarthQuake.

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