By Prasun Sonwalkar, Indo-Asian News Service
London, Jan 18 (IANS) As the Shilpa Shetty show overshadowed Chancellor Gordon Brown's visit to India in the British media, the Celebrity Big Brother on Channel 4 clocked an unprecedented six million viewers on Wednesday night.
The viewership figures for Wednesday were over a million more than that recorded for Tuesday night as allegations of racism against Shetty figured high on the agenda of diplomacy between Indian and Britain, and hogged international headlines.
After Prime Minister Tony Blair, Brown and others intervened to express their opposition to racism in all its forms, Conservative leader David Cameron said: "I completely abhor racism. Everyone has got a responsibility here. There's a great regulator called the off button and I think we should use it."
In large sections of the media here, Brown's comments on Shetty were given more prominence than his speech on globalisation and economic issues in Bangalore on Wednesday. Television news channels provided back-to-back coverage of the Shetty show, including "exclusive" interviews with her mother in Mumbai.
In a statement, Channel 4 denied claims that Shetty had suffered racist bullying. There had been a "cultural and class clash" between Shetty and three other housemates, the channel said.
"To date there has been no overt racial abuse or racist behaviour directed against Shilpa Shetty within the Big Brother house. However there has undoubtedly been a cultural and class clash between her and three of the British females in the house," it added.
Shetty herself had so far not expressed any concerns of racial abuse, the channel said.
Media strategists believe that the furore caused by remarks by fellow contestants against Shetty will bring excellent dividends for the sponsors, Carphone Warehouse. For the record, the company claimed that it would "review" its sponsorship, but it was unlikely to pull out.
Chris Locke, UK trading director at media agency Starcom, told The Guardian: "For Carphone Warehouse it is the perfect vehicle for targeting the right market to shift mobile phones, of course they will keep it going.
"Strategically, they aren't about to pull out of anything, in my opinion. Big Brother is one of the biggest TV events of the year, it is great for their sales, and there is always some sort of incident - you know that when you sign the sponsorship contract."
Channel 4 has reportedly told Carphone Warehouse that any behaviour deemed racist during the rest of the series could result in the removal of the offending housemate.
Television regulator Ofcom and Channel 4 have now received over 20,000 complaints, as British Asian websites, chatrooms and radio stations continue to buzz with indignation and more over the treatment meted out to the long-legged stunner from Bollywood.
Blair's official spokesman told reporters: "What clearly is to be regretted and countered is if there is any perception abroad that in any way we tolerate racism in this country.
"What the response to the programme has shown is precisely the opposite - that there is no level of toleration in this country for anything which, rightly or wrongly, is perceived to be racist.
"The message should go out from this country loud and clear that we are a tolerant country and we will not tolerate racism in any way."
He added that Blair had not seen the programmes and had no plans to view videotapes of the incidents, as he did not regard it as his role to act as a commentator on television programmes.
The Guardian quoted an unnamed source as saying that this week the two contestants nominated for eviction will be Jade Goody, seen as the ringleader of the bullies in the Big Brother house, and Shetty.
Fellow contestants have reportedly overwhelmingly nominated Goody and Shetty for eviction, it said. Housemates generally secretly nominate two of their number to be evicted and the two with the highest number of nominations face the public vote.
Meanwhile, bookmaker William Hill made Shetty favourite to win the series, at odds of 6/4. "She has stuck in there and if she now picks up the public sympathy vote, punters certainly believe she will be very hard to beat," it said.