Accusations of racism in the "Celebrity Big Brother" house this week have blanketed the front pages of every U.K. newspaper and TV-news bulletin, as well as sparking questions in the House of Commons and dominating a visit to India by Gordon Brown, who is likely to become the next U.K. prime minister this year.
Record number of complaints
Ofcom, the U.K. TV watchdog, has so far received a record 36,000 complaints from viewers about racism and bullying in the show. And in India, effigies of producers of the Channel 4 show have been burnt in the streets.
Reality TV is no stranger to allegations of stirring up racism. In the U.S., "Survivor" courted controversy by starting this past season with four tribes split into teams of Caucasians, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans. After a few weeks, the CBS show began blending the tribes -- but not before Procter & Gamble Co. had decided not to renew its "Febreze Family Moments" sponsorship from the previous season.
The U.K.'s "Celebrity Big Brother" follows a group of minor celebrities 24 hours a day as they live together in a house, devoid of contact with the outside world. Contestants include Dirk Benedict, better known as Templeton "The Face" Peck in the 1980s TV show "The A-Team," and Jermaine Jackson, brother of Michael and former member of the Jackson Five.
Sponsor warned Channel 4
Carphone Warehouse said in a statement: "We are totally against all forms of racism and bullying. We had already made it clear to Channel 4 that, were this to continue, we would have to consider our position. Nothing we saw last night gave us any comfort. Accordingly, we have instructed C4 to remove our sponsorship name and branding."
The row centers on the behavior of Ms. Goody -- who qualifies as a celebrity because she won the "Big Brother" show (which doesn't feature celebrities) in 2002 and has since made an estimated $8 million fortune through her own TV shows, books, videos and perfume -- toward Shilpa Shetty, a Bollywood star and India's answer to Cameron Diaz.
Ms. Shetty has suffered housemates calling her "Shilpa Popadom" and ranting, "She can't even speak English properly. ... I think she should f**k off home."
A furious media debate is raging about whether the contestants are guilty of racism or a clash of class. Ms. Shetty is a high-caste Indian, while Ms. Goody -- who was controversially described as "white trash" by Mr. Jackson -- is from an underprivileged background.
Public vote coming
Viewers will have a chance to show their loyalties as Ms. Goody and Ms. Shetty are both up for eviction from the house tomorrow and face a public vote to decide who stays and who goes.
Viewers can see the show evenings at 9 p.m. on Channel 4. They can also watch frequent online updates (www.channel4.com/bigbrother) or sign up for a $10 season pass to watch 24-hour-a-day video from the house.
The media storm may have cost Channel 4 its main program sponsor, but it has had a very positive effect on ratings. An audience of 5.7 million tuned in on last night, up 1.2 million from the previous day's show and a significant increase from the series low of 2.8 million.