'Today's' Bride

Sarah Raley, right, looks at wedding-gown options with
Sarah Raley, right, looks at wedding-gown options with "Today's" Katie Couric, left, and TheKnot.com's Carley Roney. (Top And Center Photos By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Like any bride, Sarah Raley believes it's bad luck for the groom to see her wedding dress before the Big Day, and she brought along her mom to look at the final four choices. There was a classic ivory gown with embroidered lace, an ivory silk with touches of color, a sexy backless sheath and a glamorous strapless column dress. Unlike most brides, she shared this special moment with 6 million people yesterday.

Raley is the "Today" show's latest bride, which means viewers selected her and fiance Mark Dale to receive an all-expenses-paid wedding planned entirely by the morning show audience. When she walks down the aisle Sept. 16, Raley will wear the gown, cut the cake and dance in the ballroom that received the most votes.

"When you thought about getting married, was there a particular dress you had in mind?" asked Katie Couric. Luckily, the answer is no. "This is kind of go-with-the-flow," said the bride-to-be.

Raley, 23, and Dale, 26 -- both from St. Mary's County in Maryland -- are the sixth couple to be married in "Today's" wedding series. When they entered the contest, they agreed to turn over every decision to the show's staff and audience, and exchange vows live on national television. In return, they'll receive a fantasy wedding, reception and honeymoon worth at least $50,000. Tax-free.

"How do you feel about the way Sarah is tying the knot?" Couric asked Raley's mother, Denise. "Are you a little freaked, or excited?"

"I'm excited," she answered. "I realize I'm not in control, so I'm letting it go."

Truth is, she's probably freaked and excited. Like most moms, she'll be thrilled to see her daughter marry the man she loves. But the biggest smiles will be in the wedding industry. Thanks in part to the "Today" show, and the reality wedding imitators that followed, brides will spend billions on weddings this year. Not everyone can get married with Katie and Matt, but every bride can have her 15 minutes of fame -- at a price.

Something New

Everybody has an opinion about weddings. One bride's romantic fantasy is another's beyond tacky. Tradition, sentiment and vanity converge into one lovely, stressful, wildly expensive confection. Think Hydra with crystal-trimmed tulle wedding veils, but no Hercules.

"Today's" wedding series harnessed all the excitement, glamour and commerce of the Big Day -- and boosted ratings, brides and the entire matrimonial mill. It started in 2000, when the show teamed up with TheKnot.com, a bridal Web site, to host a free wedding for one engaged couple. Viewers would select the winning couple and all the accouterments for a live wedding in Rockefeller Center.

There had been ceremonies on television before, usually one-hour affairs with Kathie Lee crying, singing -- or both. "Today" asked the audience to plan a wedding over 12 weeks, and put gowns, invitations, flowers and reception sites on center stage.

"It was groundbreaking," says Rebecca Grinnals, president of Engaging Concepts, a wedding marketing firm.

Each week four options were presented and viewers voted for their favorite online, where they also found more information about each product. Virtual discussions sprang up, and message boards debated the options.

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