The £70,000 prize that the last occupant to leave the Big Brother house will walk away with this Friday is peanuts compared with the vast gains that the tabloids are pulling in. For the red-tops' unrelenting coverage of the show during its nine-week run has stemmed less from an irrational obsession with a game show than from a wise marketeer's recognition that Big Brother stories sell newspapers.
The "Big Bitcher" splash of The Mirror, in which the husband of Narinder, one of the contestants, let rip with his opinions of the Big Brother house's residents, was that paper's highest Thursday sale this year – at 2,119,000, it out-punched the second-best Thursday seller, John Prescott's hustings fracas.
The Mirror's front-page picture of three of the house's female residents naked in the bath led to one of its highest Friday circulations of the year, too – 2.5 per cent above the sale expected, at 2,107,000.
And the paper's Saturday edition after the contestant Bubble was voted out – a vote it took credit for, having campaigned for Paul to remain incarcerated – sold nearly 2.8 million, 70,000 more than the average for the time of year.
Big Brother, it seems, hits all the right tabloid buttons.
It isn't hard to see why. One look at the audience gathered at the Big Brother site and studio on a Friday "eviction" night gives a big clue. There, waving banners to the camera and screaming for its favourite resident, is a demographic slice that has any right-minded tabloid editor salivating: the 16-to-35-year-olds to whom the show appeals are not only the ones that advertisers are desperate to reach, they are also in the age group least likely to buy a daily paper.
Richard Wallace, head of news at The Mirror, describes it as a "magic age-bracket" and explains that with its Big Brother coverage The Mirror is picking up those readers who are not in the habit of buying newspapers any more. Sure, it is a "marketing thing", he agrees. "When I moved into the nationals, in the Eighties, show business and TV in particular were always part of the mix, but it wasn't realised then that if you exploit the programmes themselves, you will put on readers."
There is more to Big Brother than simple demographics, though. Many programmes appeal to younger people. Big Brother has something else besides. The Sun's assistant editor, show business, Dominic Mohan, recognises it. The UK's first 24-hour, interactive, multi-platform game show, he explains, "is a natural living organism which we can affect and change".
That has proved an irresistible challenge, as The Sun's campaign for Bubble and The Mirror's campaign for Paul proved. Newspaper campaigns have always pulled in readers – and with Big Brother it hasn't seemed to matter whether they win or lose. The Sun nailed its colours to a loser with Bubble, but it still scored a hit. The exclusive post-eviction interview it ran with the 24-year-old Chelsea fan gave it a sales fillip of more than 40,000.
Big Brother's creator, Endemol Entertainment UK, and broadcaster, Channel 4, cannot but be delighted. An evaluation of the coverage of last year's series calculated that the 2,189-odd cuts that appeared in the nationals had an equivalent advertising value of more than £13m – up to five times that sum if you consider the weighting attributed by the industry to positive editorial.
This year, the TV types can look forward to even more free publicity. By yesterday, the cuts count was only 84 off last year's figure.
"The press only really picked up on the show half-way through last time, but they went berserk from the start this year," says C4's head of press, Yvonne Taylor.
"We're in this bizarre position of being very casual about having three splashes on any one day," she adds. "If we haven't got substantial coverage every day, we get rather piqued now. It's all a bit odd."
As of yesterday, The Mirror had managed to find a Big Brother story for its front page 16 times during the current series. The Daily Star just pipped it at 17, while The Sun trailed but still wasn't doing badly on 11. The Daily Express, Daily Mail, Sunday Mirror, Sunday People and News of the World had all seen fit to feature the show on their covers, too, at various point since the run started on Channel 4 on 26 May.
All the tabloids have assigned Big Brother reporters to monitor the goings-on among the housemates on Channel 4's digital channel, E4, as well as on the website. The Daily Star has gone as far as bringing in an outside agency to help with its monitoring activities.
While some may sneer, it should be remembered that the broadsheets have not been completely immune to Big Brother-itis. One Guardian reporter spent six hours looking round the Big Brother site for a feature; even the Financial Times has carried a piece on its analysis pages.
Taylor of C4 has been overseeing the mammoth publicity operation serving the show. A 24-hour, seven-days-a-week press hotline has been handling journalists' queries, from those about the welfare of Marjorie, the chicken in series one, to details about the house's solar panels – as well as politely explaining to the occasional not-so-clued-up TV writer that, no, preview tapes are not available for this particular show.
More than 300 journalists have been receiving regular group e-mail updates about activities in the house, and specialist teams of publicists have been brought in to deal with queries about the location, those evicted, the website, E4, the mobile phone service...
It is an operation, according to Taylor, where the PR arts of "feeding" the press have not come into the publicity equation. "I'm just astounded they find something different to say every day," she says.
But, when tens of thousands of sales can be added to a daily circulation figure with the right story, who can blame an editor for looking?