Time to Load Up on Kidman?

The BBC weds celebrity with online trading--and scores

Lost a bundle on Cable & Wireless PLC (CWP )? Feel like your investment in Cadbury Schweppes PLC (CSG ) has gone sour? Maybe it's time to rebalance your portfolio. How about 100 shares of Catherine Zeta-Jones? Those in the know say that at $15 a pop, the actress is still cheap. And with the Oscars just around the corner and a baby on the way, there's considerable upside potential to Catherine. If you're a value investor, you might want to load up on Nicole Kidman, currently trading at $11.30 -- up $3 since February. "If ever there was a long-term hold, it would be Nicole," says Justin Urquhart Stewart, a director at London brokerage Seven Investment Management.

Stewart is one of approximately 200,000 mostly Brits hooked on Celebdaq, a trading game where shareholder culture meets pop culture. The online exchange specializes in a hot commodity: celebrities. Actors, models, athletes, politicians -- 300 of them can be bought and sold on the BBC Web site. Launched last July, the site really took flight after a spin-off TV show made its debut on Feb. 14 on the new digital BBC Three channel. The Celebdaq's popularity is a milestone in the quest by Britain's publicly funded broadcaster to update its frumpy image. And executive producer Chris Wilson refutes criticism that the BBC is straying from its core educational mission: "Celebdaq players can't help but learn how basic exchanges work."

Here's how you make your trades on Celebdaq. Users go to the home page (bbc.co.uk/celebdaq) and register at no charge. An account is set up in their name with $16,000 in virtual cash. They are then free to start buying and selling celebrity stocks. No real money changes hands, except for the $160 weekly cash prize paid out to the player that realizes the biggest percentage gain over the previous seven days. "You can be as mad as you like with your portfolio," says Rebecca Ulph, senior media analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in London, who has her money on ex-Spice Girl Mel C.

When Wilson first conceived Celebdaq, he was aiming for the 24- to 34-year-old female crowd sustained by a steady diet of celebrity gossip. What he didn't bargain on was that his Web site would also develop a dedicated following among the City's traders. With the FTSE down nearly 13% year-to-date, London's bankers are keeping their skills honed on Celebdaq. One London employee of a U.S. investment bank is putting his money on Aussie pop sensation Kylie Minogue. The blonde singer may never be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but Minogue's social life provides plenty of fodder for the tabloids. "The papers love hitching and ditching, so I like to put my investments behind love-angle situations," says this stock-picker.

Celebdaq isn't the first exchange of its kind, but it's the most successful. The Hollywood Stock Exchange, a subsidiary of London-based Cantor Index Holdings, has been around since 1996, and the music-focused PopEx since 1998. What makes Celebdaq a winner is the tie-in TV show, which airs each Friday at 10:30 p.m, right after the popular soap opera EastEnders. Hosted by Patrick O'Connell, a former Wall Street correspondent for the BBC, Celebdaq's half-hour format is modeled on business news programs, down to the stock ticker that runs across the bottom of the screen. A pinstriped O'Connell takes the temperature of the market with the aid of a panel of real-life brokers, tabloid journalists, and some of the quoted celebrities.

Celebdaq's only limitation is that it is Brit-centric. A big chunk of the 300 listed celebrities hail from local pop culture. But a host of production companies already have approached the BBC about developing an American version. Wilson and his team will test the waters when they head out to Hollywood for the Oscars on Mar. 23. Speaking of the Oscars, best-actor nominee Jack Nicholson looks like a bargain at $3, don't you think?

By Christina Passariello in Paris

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