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BBC's mock stock market puts a price on celebrities

April 14, 2003|David Gritten | Special to the Times

New York — New York

-- Cultural critics often make the point that modern celebrities use their fame as a form of currency and come to view themselves as celebrity brands or commodities with "value" that they try to maintain.

Now a British television show has taken that metaphor at face value, giving real celebrities a "share price" and encouraging viewers to "invest" in them by predicting whether their "stock" will rise or fall.

"Celebdaq" (its awkward name stems from Nasdaq) was created for the British Broadcasting Corp. last summer as a Web site, but this year it has also become a controversial Friday night TV show on the new digital channel BBC3, which is targeting an audience aged 25 to 34.

The show has the look of a financial news channel. The stock value of some 250 celebrities -- actors, musicians, sportsmen and the famous-for-being-famous -- crawls across the bottom of the screen like tickertape. Stars have their own abbreviations: SALHAY is Salma Hayek, SANBUL is Sandra Bullock.

The show is presented by Patrick O'Connell, who appears in a conservative suit and tie; only his sardonic manner betrays that "Celebdaq" is tongue-in-cheek. Minor celebrity guests appear on the show to reveal which stars are in their portfolios.

Among the most profitable celebrities recently were Prince Charles, whose price increased from $3.85 to $30.64 after the publication of a report about his staff's selling gifts to his household; former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham, who along with her husband, England's soccer captain David Beckham, is a perennial presence in Britain's tabloid press; and singer Kylie Minogue, whose career and romances are a current obsession with the nation's gossip columnists. (Recently, she was briefly linked with pop star Justin Timberlake.)

Jennifer Lopez was among the most profitable a few weeks ago, having made tabloid news every day when she visited London to promote her film "Maid in Manhattan." And Michael Jackson stock soared to $35 after the infamous TV documentary about him, presented by Martin Bashir.

"Celebdaq" viewers can register to invest virtual cash on celebrities of their choice; their stock value depends on the volume of trading in their name and the number of column inches in British tabloid newspapers for the preceding week. No actual money changes hands, but at the end of each week, the registered investor whose portfolio shows the highest gain wins a modest cash prize of around $160 and a garish jacket of the kind favored by traders on the floors of stock exchanges.

The Web site was attracting some 70,000 investors, but within "Celebdaq's" first month as a TV show, it was drawing 170,000 viewers. "The show seems to be doing very well," said executive producer Chris Wilson, 37. "The demand for the show has enabled us to do daily one-minute updates of celebrity share prices."

"Celebdaq" has also attracted criticism, in part because it does not discriminate about the reasons why various celebrities make headlines. Last month, Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Law's wife, actress Sadie Frost, were featured heavily on the "Celebdaq" index because the British press reported rumors of a romance between Kidman and Law. (Kidman strenuously denied the rumors.) Law and Frost released a statement that their marriage had broken down, and Frost was reported to be suffering from postnatal depression. This added up to tabloid newspaper columns in yards rather than inches.

British television's trade magazine "Broadcast" led the assault on "Celebdaq," wondering whether the distress of celebrities like Frost and Law (who had asked to be left in peace) was appropriate fodder for viewers. Newspaper columnist Rebecca Tyrrell of the Sunday Telegraph, while admitting that "Celebdaq" was addictive, said it seemed "morally dubious."

Criticisms of "Celebdaq" have a deeper resonance for the BBC, which is subsidized by British taxpayers; everyone who owns a television set pays an annual license fee, which funds its programming. And the BBC's existence is controlled by Parliament, which renews its charter as long as it demonstrates its commitment to public service programming. Whether "Celebdaq" can be construed as public service programming is debatable.

Not everyone in public life is listed in the "Celebdaq" index. Prime Minister Tony Blair is a notable absentee. Pope John Paul II was originally listed when the Web site launched last June but was dropped after complaints from viewers.

Wilson defends "Celebdaq." "Like it or not, that story about Jude and Sadie and Nicole ran a long time," he said. "We've had celebrities tell us they're pleased to be on the index. Kylie Minogue said she was thrilled her price was on the up.

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