Media Lifeline: Big Brother sponsors

Popular and controversial in equal doses, the reality TV show provides a real quandary for backers.

2000: Big Brother's first UK series, hailed in many quarters as a brave observational exercise in group psychology, is sponsored by Southern Comfort. This pays dividends when the show, helped by the emergence of the contestant "Nasty Nick" as a pantomime villain, begins grabbing national newspaper headlines and bumper ratings.

2001: Despite the publicity and the viewing figures, Southern Comfort decides not to renew its contract. Its place is taken by BT Cellnet, which maintains its association into the third and fourth series of the show (though BT Cellnet has now rebranded as 02).

2004: And when 02 bows out, the telco theme is continued when Carphone Warehouse brand Talk Talk steps into the breach for Big Brother 5. It gets a shock as the show runs into nasty controversy - violence breaks out between housemates, resulting in the intervention of security guards. But it stays loyal to the show and commits to Celebrity Big Brother, too.

January 2007: Charles Dunstone has now committed for four years, although the brand focus shifted in 2006 from Talk Talk to its parent company. But now the property hits a controversy too far when, during Celebrity Big Brother 5, the actress Shilpa Shetty is subjected to bullying.

March 2007: As speculation mounts that Channel 4 is running out of time to find a replacement sponsor for Big Brother 8, it pulls another telco rabbit out of the hat when it signs Virgin. In retrospect, this shouldn't have come as a surprise. In the past, Virgin Mobile hasn't been scared of courting controversy - for instance, signing up Kate Moss when she was being reviled in the tabloid press for her cocaine use.

Fast forward ...

January 2008: Virgin rides out a number of storms during the run of Big Brother 8, which (not entirely by accident) is characterised by spectacularly vile behaviour from the inmates. But Richard Branson fails to see the funny side when, as a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother, he has his beard shaved off by Heather Mills while in a drunken stupor. Virgin is replaced as the sponsor by Carlsberg Special Brew.