Who wants to win a £177m legal case against Disney?

Ian Burrell reports on the TV company with the Midas touch on screen and in court

The game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, one of the most successful in the history of television, yesterday produced another £177m windfall for its British creators, who had to do rather more than ring a friend to get their hands on the money.

The format that inspired the film Slumdog Millionaire produced its latest cash bonanza only after a fraught eight-year-long legal battle. As the London-based production company Celador Entertainment celebrated news of its eventual victory in a Los Angeles court yesterday it was as much a fairy tale ending as the one which won Slumdog 10 Academy Award nominations in the same city 18 months ago.

But Disney, supposedly the home of fairy tales, would not agree. The global media giant, which has broadcast the American version of Millionaire on its ABC network since 1999, was ordered to pay the £177m after it was found to have denied Celador a fair share of the profits for a programme that at its height ranked among the top 10 most popular shows in the US.

The ruling will have prompted a smile from the Birmingham comedian Jasper Carrott, who took a 15 per cent share in Celador's parent company before the court case began. He has now sold the stake but is set to benefit from the California court finding. The company's chairman, Paul Smith, one of the four original creators of the show, admitted he screamed when he first received news of the jury's verdict in an email from his lawyer. "It's been eight years – two years of trying to settle it out of court and then six years in court," he said. "It's a very daunting prospect. Disney is an absolute giant and we are a tiny little minnow."

Never mind giants, Disney reacted to the ruling like Cruella De Vil, Captain Hook and The Shadow Man from The Princess and the Frog, all rolled into one. "We believe this verdict is fundamentally wrong and will aggressively seek to have it reversed," said the company, indicating in no uncertain terms its intention to appeal against the finding.

Disney's chief executive officer, Robert Iger, told Hollywood entertainment website TheWrap that "the jury made the wrong decision". Iger may have been sore because the enthusiasm that his predecessor Michael Eisner showed for Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was admitted as evidence in support of the British company's case.

Celador's lead lawyer, Roman Silberfeld, said the American version of Millionaire, presented by the chat show host Regis Philbin, had helped to revive ABC's status among the national broadcasters. "At a time when ABC was ranked last among the networks and desperately needed a hit, it entered into an agreement with Celador to put Who Wants to be a Millionaire? on the air and share the profits of success – if there was success – with Celador 50-50. Every witness testified that was the deal."

As the popularity of the show enabled ABC to increase its ad revenues, "ABC and a series of affiliated companies entered into a series of agreements that were solely intended to show Millionaire never showed a profit," he said. "If you look at an accounting statement today, after 10 years on the air, it says it has lost money every year and is 75 million dollars in the red."

The series, which began in Britain in 1998 as an ITV show hosted by Chris Tarrant, has generated so many real-life storylines that it has rarely been out of the news. In the early years, Celador itself made out-of-court payments to individuals who claimed legal copyright of the format, originally devised by a four-strong team some of whom worked with Tarrant on his radio show on London's Capital FM network.

Most notoriously, the game show was at the centre of a cheating scandal when an Army major, Charles Ingram, with his wife Diana and Tecwen Whittock, a college lecturer who was participating in the same 2001 edition of the show, were convicted two years later of conspiring to fraudulently win the £1m prize. Members of the production team noticed that Ingram was responding to signals in the form of coughs from Whittock, a quiz champion. The trio denied the charges against them.

In the most dramatic development in the story of the format, Celador Films, which is part of Celador Entertainment and holds the movie rights to Millionaire, struck a deal with Channel 4's Film 4 to make Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Danny Boyle. The movie was also inspired by the novel of the same name written by Vikas Swarup.

Celador, which was founded in 1983, sold its TV division three and a half years ago and its main areas of business are now films, radio stations and theatre productions. The company takes its name from the words "cellar door", the phono-aesthetic qualities of which made a great impression on JRR Tolkien. "Most English-speaking people... will admit that cellar door is beautiful, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful," he once observed. The author of The Lord of the Rings may also have appreciated Millionaire's own rather magical story of ambition and make believe, of giants and fairy tale endings.

Inside millionaire world

* Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has become one of global television's biggest hits since its British debut in 1998. Developed by Celador, with the working title Cash Mountain, the format has been sold to more than 100 countries.

* In 2008, Sony Pictures bought 2waytraffic, the Dutch company that owned the rights to the show, for £137.5m. 2waytraffic had bought the format in 2006 for £106m. The deal earned comedian Jasper Carrott more than £10m from his stake in Celador International.



* John Carpenter was the first contestant to win the big money prize, walking away with a million dollars on the US version of the show in 1999.



* The show's title is usually translated. Versions include: Quem quer ser milionário? ( Angola); Die Millionenshow (Austria); Postkodmiljonären (Sweden); Hot Seat (Australia); and Who Wants to be Rich? (Ghana).



* Japan has the most winners, boasting 31 millionaires.



* Prize money varies from nation to nation. Examples (at current conversion rates) include: Afghanistan (£14,000); Portugal (£209,000); Angola (£21,000); Georgia (£7,000); Japan (£75,000).



* In 2007, the Venezuelan version of the show was cancelled by the Government but it went on to be performed live in a square in the capital, Caracas.



* The "Is that your final answer?" line, borne partly out of a legal requirement to give contestants every opportunity to be sure of their selection, and first used in the British show by Chris Tarrant, became a pop culture catchphrase. But the host of the Australian show, Eddie McGuire, preferred the snappier "Lock it in?". This has been adopted on the New Zealand and, oddly, Finnish versions ("Lukitaanko vastaus?" in the latter).



* It took more than two years for the British show to produce a winner. Judith Keppel became the 12th "millionaire" in the world when she hit the jackpot in November 2000. There have been four winners since, the most recent being Ingram Wilcox, a civil servant from Bath, who scooped the prize in 2006.



* The Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? PC game became the fastest-selling PC game ever after its release in 2000, selling more copies in its first eight weeks than the Tomb Raider game and 1.3 million copies in its first year.



* Charles Ingram and his wife, Diana, had both appeared on the British version of the show (each winning £32,000) before Ingram was accused of cheating in 2001. The Sandhurst-trained Army major was alleged to have used a coughing accomplice in the audience to help him win the million-pound prize. He and his wife were found guilty of deception, fined £15,000 each and ordered to pay £10,000 costs. They received 18-month suspended prison sentences, and Ingram was kicked out of the army.

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