If you believe reality TV is a tired formula, tottering towards an imminent demise amid waning interest, look at what has happened after Nestle's tie-up with the new series of Big Brother. You may want to think again.
The confectioner has hidden 100 "golden tickets" in 40,000 specially wrapped Kit Kat packs being sold during a two-week launch campaign. Out of the people who find such a ticket, one will be picked at random to enter the Big Brother house. Now eBay is awash with people willing to open two of the special packs each day and to sell any "golden tickets" they find to the highest bidder.
Meanwhile, several tabloids, eager to have one of their reporters selected as a housemate, are said to be offering up to £10,000 a ticket.
The initiative, supported by an ad campaign co-funded by Channel 4 and Nestle, has left both parties delighted. "It's been a huge logistical operation, but it's worked out well both for us and Channel 4's marketing department," a Nestle spokesman says. "We've got some terrific PR."
Channel 4 agrees. "The idea is a complete TV first and a true brand partnership," a senior executive says. "We like the idea of throwing the selection process wide open and putting someone in at random."
The "golden ticket" experience suggests reality TV remains in rude health with little likelihood of collapse. Not while newspapers are happy to feed viewer frenzy. And certainly not while advertisers and sponsors seek to reach young consumers who tend to be light watchers of mass-audience TV programmes.
An estimated 46 per cent of Big Brother viewers are aged between 16 and 34.
None of this has been lost on ITV which, despite last year's problematic debut of Celebrity Love Island, has commissioned a second series hosted by Patrick Kielty, which will go head-to-head with Big Brother from next month, albeit with no confirmed sponsor as Campaign went to press.
Significantly, the show will now be called simply Love Island amid speculation that "celebrity" has become a tainted term. It certainly looks set to spark a fierce ratings war, with Channel 4 hoping to have hooked its audience before its rival arrives. Seven million people watched the first show of the new Big Brother series, giving Channel 4 its highest daily audience share of the year so far.
Gary Knight, ITV's brand partnerships director, is unfazed. "Our performance last year shows there is room for more than one young-skewed show across the summer," he says. "Big Brother generally launches strongly, but always dips as its run progresses."
Celebrity Love Island got off to a faltering start on its first outing.
Nevertheless, it managed to land a few damaging blows on its heavyweight rival, finally peaking with a viewing figure of 5.3 million. "The series did exactly what we wanted it to do in attracting a young audience to ITV 1 and at the same time putting a dent in Big Brother's audience," Knight insists.
It was the love triangle involving Abi Titmuss, Jayne Middlemiss and Lee Sharpe that proved the turning point, highlighting the need to ensure reality shows remain fresh and compulsive viewing. "After a slow start, the series was brought to life," Laurence Munday, a founding partner of the sponsorship specialist Drum PHD, says. "It just goes to show what can happen once you've got an unpredictable storyline for the press to seize upon."
As the perpetual need to spice up the offering increases, so the pretence that Big Brother and similar shows are "social experiments" has waned.
The Big Brother house now has three double beds to encourage sex romps (according to The Sun) among a record 16 housemates, while the house, despite looking stylish, has deliberately been made uncomfortable.
"It's all about media appeal," Munday explains. "These new elements are meant to create a reaction and provoke conflict." Indeed, John Lowery, Grey London's chief planning officer, suggests the term reality TV has become a misnomer. "It's not really that at all," he says.
Love it or loathe it, though, the consensus is that reality TV, far from being a fad, has become a permanent fixture in the media mix. "Not least because it's cheap," Lowery points out.
The major commercial channels would not put it so bluntly. Nevertheless, Big Brother generates more than £40 million in advertising and £10 million-plus in sponsorship. Without such revenue, they argue, it would be hard to support non-rating winners such as news and current affairs programmes or expensive drama series.
Another fillip may come with the relaxation of rules on product placement.
The European Commission favours a more liberal approach, as does Ofcom.
But advertisers have mixed views about reality TV's benefits. Carphone Warehouse decided to switch its long-running sponsorship of Big Brother from its Talk Talk landline service to its core brand in response to what it said was the show's success at pulling in the younger audiences relevant to its main brand.
"Fragmenting media makes it more difficult every year to reach our target audience," Russell Jones, the Guinness marketing director, says. "We need high-rating programmes like Big Brother."
Chris Moss, the European chairman of the Number Group of Companies and the catalyst for the 118 118 campaign, admits his regret at not involving his brand with reality TV when 118 118 was in its infancy. "Short commercial breaks can penalise you but programmes like Big Brother can give you real visibility very quickly," he says. "They are good value for money."
But Andrew Marsden, the Britvic marketing chief, counsels caution. "You have to think carefully about whether you want a brand in that environment," he warns. "The audiences for such shows aren't necessarily young and may already be heavy TV viewers. What's more, there can be big differences in programme quality."
Communications strategists believe the fact that the genre is completely right for the times will ensure its survival. "Rather than being the arse-end of TV, reality TV can be its saviour," George Bryant, the head of planning at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, argues. "In a post-Sky+ world of on-demand viewing, it is event TV that will draw crowds and brands together to talk, watch and do business."
Lee Daley, the chairman and chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, suggests reality TV will endure because it stimulates the personal relationships and interaction that advertisers are keen to build up with consumers. He believes the format could eventually allow companies to extend their databases and even to test market products still at the research and development stage.
Channel 4 is responding to this by extending the series to 13 weeks and giving sponsors added on-air presence via additional Big Brother shows hosted by Dermot O'Leary and Russell Brand. Love Island's sponsorship package includes red button interactivity, sponsorship of the show's website, mobile interactivity, sales promotion, PR and licensing opportunities. "These shows really do build what I like to call 'connected advertising'," Knight says.
"Big Brother and similar shows are here to stay because they allow a degree of participation that traditional formats don't," Daley says.
However, reality TV's survival depends on keeping its offering fresh and appealing. Roger Kirman, Unilever's head of marketing excellence, believes series such as The Apprentice, in which reality TV meets talent show, may indicate the way forward. "Other innovations will come which combine formats and genres - and long may this continue," he says.
Above all, reality TV must retain its event status, Bryant concludes.
"If it loses that," he warns, "it will become as desirable as a Crossroads repeat."
THE REALITY BATTLE
Format owner: Endemol
First UK series: 2000
Sponsor: Carphone Warehouse/Talk Talk (since 2004)
Number of programmes in 2006: series 13
Average 2005 audience: 6.7 million
Peak 2005 viewing moment: Anthony Hutton's victory after one of the most
closely contested votes in Big Brother's history. Audience of 7.8
CELEBRITY LOVE ISLAND
Format owner: ITV
First UK series: 2005
Sponsor: To be confirmed, Chevrolet (2005)
Number of programmes in 2006 series: To be confirmed
Average 2005 audience: 3.7 million
Peak 2005 viewing moment: The episode featuring a general knowledge quiz