The poptastic power of Parky


A slot on his show can send your album soaring up the charts, so it's no wonder artists are queuing to be Michael Parkinson's guests, writes Brian Boyd

Forget Top of the Pops, MTV and CD:UK: the most prestigious music slot on television now belongs to a 68-year-old chat show host. Strange but true, Michael Parkinson has become one of the most influential people in the music industry.

A slot on his prime-time Saturday night show can propel a newcomer into the next week's Top 20 of the album charts.

The two musical slots on the show are the most coveted promotional tools going today. Record companies, bookers, managers and agents would kill for a "Parky", knowing that the mere four minutes of exposure is a crucial short cut for emerging artists.

Since the resurrection of the Parkinson show in 1998, the musical world has changed almost beyond recognition. You have two distinct camps: the younger, Pop Idol sort of acts which rely on selling singles, and then the "album" artists, who cater for a more matureaudience. Musically the former are characterised by slinky r 'n' b, hip-hop and saccharine pop; the latter specialise in soul/jazz/crooner material.

The Parkinson show saw this divide coming before even the specialised music programmes and over the past year or so it has single-handedly broken "album" artists such as Jamie Cullum, Michael Bublé and Joss Stone. Although these three acts cater for a more mature musical palate, the irony is that their combined ages still come in below that of Parkinson himself.

Cullum and Bublé both saw their albums go Top 20 in the week after their first Parkinson appearances last year. Although both in their twenties, their contemporary take on crooning (Cullum covers both Sinatra and The Cure) is a perfect match for the chat show's demographic. The show wields such power because, although it only pulls in seven million viewers, those seven million are a record company's commercial dream: they are, invariably, aged over 25 and have a broad interest in entertainment and music.

The show's producer Danny Dignan says it's vital for the show to lead and not follow musical trends. "The first thing about the show is that I'm 34 and a lot of the people who work on the programme are young too, so we're that generation who have a huge interest in music. It does help that Parkinson has one of the broadest demographics of all the talk shows." For example, he points out, the show had The Pet Shop Boys on a fortnight ago. "So it's not all music of a certain genre. With the acts we're credited with helping to break - Cullum and Bublé - it's important to know that we had heard of them long before their PR campaigns had kicked in, and the reason for that is because we are music enthusiasts. Of course, we read the reviews and the features in the press, but we get out to gigs also."

Dignan, Parkinson and executive producer Bea Ballard (a daughter of J. G. Ballard) all shape the show's musical content. Parkinson himself is a life-long jazz aficionado and has his own weekly music show on BBC Radio 2, while Ballard grew up listening to The Jam - which can only be a good thing.

"For many within the music industry, the influence of Top of the Pops is being eclipsed by Parkinson," says Ajax Scott, editor of trade magazine Music Week. The show's pre-eminent status now means it can ask - and get - exclusive appearances, as in the case of Norah Jones (the biggest musical success story in more than a decade) a few weeks ago.

Established artists have also woken up to the show's influence. David Bowie found himself with a night off during his last tour and elected to spend it performing on the show, while Sting and George Michael have both made extended appearances recently. Handy that they had new product to promote also.

"Because of the nature of the audience, we have to keep it as broad as possible," says Dignan, "which is why you'll find Jamie Cullum one week and David Bowie another. Just looking through a list of the acts we've had on this series you'll find Alicia Keyes, Kylie Minogue, REM, Dido and Annie Lennox. We don't rule anything out. We've done indie - we had Badly Drawn Boy on - but we obviously don't touch the really commercial singles chart music." It goes without saying that blinged-up gangsta rap is also out of the question.

While the show doesn't have anything like the musical depth of Jools Holland's Later . . . , that isn't the point. Parkinson has an audience reach five times greater than that of Later . . . and Parkinson is aiming at a different, perhaps less intense and studious, form of music fan - the sort of person who might drop into HMV on the way back from the garden centre.

The show represents an interesting "third way" in music. The Saturday morning pop shows can't really be appreciated by anyone above the age of 12, whereas the late-night "serious" music shows can appear to be for the dedicated and somewhat pedantic. Parkinson is for the serial browser, the person who still wants to buy CDs but can't stomach either Pop Idol frippery or rap's macho boisterousness. You could say the meek have inherited the album charts.

Just as BBC Radio 2 now helps to sell more albums than the supposedly funkier BBC Radio 1, a whole new musical audience, dormant for the last decade or so, is now re-emerging. They want their Dido, their Norah Jones, their soul and their jazz. Crucially they don't download - they use their credit cards. As Danny Dignan says, "What the Parkinson show has proved is that grown-ups will buy grown-up music if it's given as much exposure as teen-pop."

Parkinson, BBC1, tonight at 9.40 p.m. Guests include Mick Hucknall, lead singer with Simply Red, plus Scottish rock group Travis