British TV Ratings War Heats Up

After 122 episodes of the British version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, there’s finally a winner. And the winner of 1 million pounds (US$1.5 million) is a cousin of the Prince of Wales’ companion, Camilla Parker Bowles.

But Judith Keppel, 58, the ice-cool winner of all that cash, insists the royal connection does not make her a wealthy heiress, just an ordinary garden designer from Fulham in west London, married to a TV scriptwriter and mother of three grown-up children.

The high point of the show on Monday night came when host Chris Tarrant asked the million quid question: “Which [English] king was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine?”

To which the former debutante, whose great-grandmother was the sister of Parker Bowles’ great-great-grandfather, supplied the right answer with quiet confidence: “King Henry II.”

But the British newspaper The Mirror reported Keppel’s sang froide melted when she actually hit the jackpot. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed.”

Parker Bowles was said to be “amazed and delighted” at her relative’s win, The Mirror said.

‘Dumbing Down’ on Special Nights?

But as Keppel celebrated on Monday night, BBC executives suggested she may have been allowed to scoop the big prize to help the host network ITV in a tight ratings war.

The Mirror reported that BBC executives believed that without the win, Millionaire could have lost out to the final episode of the rival One Foot In The Grave on BBC One.

The papers reported that Millionaire contestant Kate Heusser scooped £500,000 (US$711,975) when the show coincided with a one-hour EastEnders special and the first week in prime time for The Weakest Link.

“It’s a bit of a coincidence,” said an unnamed BBC executive in The Mirror. “Call me suspicious, but it seems you can drastically improve your chances of becoming a millionaire if you check your BBC One schedule. I wonder if there has been some deliberate dumbing down of the questions on certain nights?”

But Tarrant scoffed at the suggestion. “It’s luck and coincidence,” he said. “We refuse to dumb questions down. The questions are hard. We always said it would come out of the blue.”

Keppel now finds herself at the heart of a battle between the two networks. “It’s a shame to see the BBC reacting with such cynicism,” said an ITV executive in The Mirror. “Millionaire has been winning the ratings battle with One Foot In The Grave for weeks. Why can’t the BBC just accept that Millionaire is hugely popular without these unpleasant attacks?”

Millionaire clocked in an audience of 14 million, the BBC reported, almost 4 million more than those who tuned in to One Foot.

While Millionaire took 48 percent of the total audience, the BBC show attracted 36 percent of the audience.

But the BBC reported the minute Keppel won, more than a million viewers switched sides to One Foot, which started 15 minutes after Millionaire.

Controversies to Come

But two major networks slugging it out in the ratings market is just one of the controversies Keppel faces as she finds herself thrust into the spotlight as ITV fetes its jackpot winner.

A day after her victory, British newspapers focused on her blue-blooded roots. But Tarrant archly supported his winner. “She can’t help the fact she talks nicely,” he told ITV’s This Morning program. “She can’t help the fact she’s not a school dinner lady, or a single mum on income support,” he said.

ITV also moved to deflect criticism after it was revealed that the friend she phoned for help with a question on Shakespeare — Jilly Greenwood — works for the ITV company Granada.

The BBC reported that Greenwood said she had nothing to do with Celador, the production company which makes the show for ITV. “We checked it out before Judith went on the program,” she added.

The World Loves a Millionaire

The hugely popular Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is a growing global phenomenon that has been sold to 80 countries worldwide and airs in 37 of those countries.

Debuting in Britain in September 1998, the series is an enormous hit in the country, despite the show’s inability to produce a jackpot winner in two years. It’s a failure many attributed to the tough questions posed to the contestants.

Brought to the U.S. and premiering on ABC on August 16, 1999, the show averaged about 29 million viewers a night in the 1999-2000 season.

Although the show has a standardized format, different cultures add interesting twists to the tone of the show. In India, the prize money has almost as much appeal as the star rating of the host, Amitabh Bachchan, a Bollywood film star.

In Russia, on the other hand, posing questions to the audience rarely works because Russian studio audiences try to give contestants the wrong answers.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.