'Big Brother' spat could damage network

LONDON — Has Channel 4, the only U.K. terrestrial web to boost its audience share last year, lost its grip on reality?

Or, to put it another way, will the alleged racist bullying of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty on “Celebrity Big Brother,” which has rocked the station for two weeks, cause lasting damage to one of Blighty’s most innovative webs?

The advertising-funded pubcaster, set up by the government, is 25 years old this fall.

Its mandate under the 2003 Communications Act is to “demonstrate innovation, experimentation and creativity, appeal to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society and to include programs of an educational nature.”

“Big Brother,” produced by Endemol, certainly started out as an innovative and experimental show when it first aired in the U.K. — but that was back in 2000 and many TV commentators now have a very different view of it.

However, C4 must generate advertising coin to pay for its hefty £600 million ($1.1 billion) program budget, and “Big Brother” is a big earner.

The furor over “Celebrity Big Brother” contestant Jade Goody’s alleged racist remarks to Shetty has proved to be ratings Viagra for the show and C4, even though it cost the show £3 million in sponsorship coin.

“It was the best bit of marketing Channel 4 could have hoped for,” says media consultant Paul Robinson. “It turned a rather boring series into must-watch TV.”

Goody was evicted from the reality show by public vote Jan. 19 after her remarks made headlines around the world. By the time you read this, the show itself will have wrapped Jan. 28, likely to huge auds.

But the controversy that had media minister Tessa Jowell attack the web for presenting “racism as entertainment,” and drew rebukes from Prime Minister Tony Blair and his successor-in-waiting, finance minister Gordon Brown, could be a watershed in the broadcaster’s history that it may well come to regret.

“Channel 4 risks becoming a prisoner of ‘Big Brother’ from a financial perspective, and this is a problem for the board because for most people it’s a format that’s outstayed its time,” says Maggie Brown, author of “Channel 4 — The First 25 years,” published this September.

“People are beginning to say, ‘What’s the point of Channel 4 if it produces this kind of insulting rubbish that presents a picture of Britain we feel deeply ashamed of?’ ” adds Brown.

Although C4 chairman Luke Johnson, a successful U.K. entrepreneur whose investments have included restaurants and greyhound tracks, has ordered a review of “Big Brother” and apologized for any offense caused by the remarks by Shetty’s housemates, many media commentators felt his public contrition came too late.

They also think the controversy has exposed serious shortcomings in C4’s senior management — Johnson, CEO Andy Duncan and program topper Kevin Lygo.

For the time being, it looks as if no one will be voted out of C4’s London HQ, but more tough questions will be asked of management in the weeks ahead.

U.K. media regulator Ofcom received about 40,000 complaints from viewers upset by Shetty’s treatment; it will rule on whether the program contained breaches of its broadcasting code.

If it did, a large fine may be pending.

More alarming for C4’s future is that Ofcom, the body that appoints the broadcasters’ chairman and which recently renewed Johnson’s contract, is in the middle of a financial review of the web.

C4 is lobbying for a public subsidy because Duncan is convinced that increased competition will erode ad coin.

Until the controversy blew up, the government had already accepted part of the argument.

On Jan. 18, when the government revealed the operating budget for the BBC, C4’s own pubcaster big brother, Jowell said she was “keeping open” the idea of forcing the BBC to hand over $27.5 million of its license fee to C4.

A clause also could force the BBC to give C4 enough digital spectrum for a TV channel and three national radio stations.

Will pols be so willing to do that now?

On the day that Jowell intervened in the controversy last week, Duncan issued a statement that claimed what was unfolding in the “Celebrity Big Brother” house had less to do with racism and more to do with culture and British society.

He gave a bullish speech highlighting the quality of recent shows including dramas “Longford,” “The Trial of Tony Blair,” “Shameless” and current-affairs skein “Dispatches,” concluding that C4 was at the top of its game creatively.

Last August, outgoing ITV CEO Charles Allen accused C4 of abandoning its remit as a pubcaster and of building a schedule around two entertainment shows, “Deal or No Deal” and “Big Brother.”

At the time many webheads thought he should pay more attention to the weaknesses in his own programs. After the “Celebrity Big Brother” spat, more people are beginning to wonder if Allen wasn’t right.

“Where is the genuine innovation in today’s Channel 4 lineup?” asks a leading producer. “The real danger is that this will almost certainly encourage people who’d like to see the British government privatize Channel 4.”

Meanwhile, another C4 racism row has broken out after almost 540 people complained to Ofcom about a contestant on “Shipwrecked” who backed slavery and insulted black people.

Lucy Buchanan said black people were “really bad” and condemned multicultural Britain.

The Commission for Racial Equality is keeping “Shipwrecked” under review. So, no doubt, are Johnson & Co.

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