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.

"Today's" producers combed bridal magazines, Web sites and books to narrow the choices to four distinct trends in any given category. They tried to push the envelope a bit, says TheKnot co-founder Carley Roney, offering not just four round cakes but one white cake with flowers, a modern square cake, a chocolate concoction and playful cupcakes . . . and viewers came along. Mothers of the brides reluctantly conceded, "If there are cupcakes on the 'Today' show maybe it's not such a kooky idea after all," said Roney.

Nonetheless, in the first year voters (more than 1.4 million) picked the most traditional items: A Carolina Herrera gown, Tiffany rings, a white cake from the renowned Sylvia Weinstock, and Hawaii for the honeymoon. NBC picked up the tab for the wedding and reception for 200.

If the free publicity was good for A-list vendors, it was great for lesser-known figures. Atlanta designer Anne Barge was one of the four gown finalists in 2003, and more than 40,000 University of Georgia alumni received e-mails asking them to vote for her design. They did, and the bride walked down the aisle in Barge's $4,400 silk satin gown embroidered in sterling silver."It definitely boosted her up to another level," says Barge spokeswoman Stefanie Williamson.

After four years of ceremonies in New York, producers last year jumped on another hot trend by throwing a destination wedding. Viewers selected Cap Juluca in Anguilla, and its sun-soaked beaches figured prominently in the final three-hour broadcast. Currently, 9 percent of all couples exchange vows in an exotic locale, and invite friends and family to join the wedding/honeymoon.

More than 11 million votes have been cast for elements of the show's five previous weddings. Voters, says senior producer Betsy Alexander, really try to make the best choices for each bride and groom. They care whether the bridesmaids wear Vera Wang or J. Crew. They care deeply.

Big Bridal Business

The average American bride is 27 years old, her fiance 29, and they will be engaged for 17 months before exchanging vows. That means more than a year of obsessively poring over books and magazines (aka wedding porn), spending hours and hours in bridal chat rooms, watching every second of reality wedding shows. She is an older, smarter and more demanding consumer who wants, needs . . . no, deserves her day in the spotlight, and the bridal industry is happy to oblige.

It's a growth industry with no end in sight. While the number of weddings has remained fairly steady, the amount spent on ceremonies, receptions, honeymoons, gifts and every bridal product or service continues to spiral upward -- $125 billion on 2.1 million weddings this year, according to a new survey conducted by the Fairchild Bridal Group. That's 40,400 weddings every weekend, with 18 million bridesmaids and groomsmen and 295 million guests bearing gourmet toasters.

The average American wedding now costs $26,327, plus another $10,000 or so in cities like New York or Washington. Only 25 percent of brides' parents pay for the entire shebang, 27 percent of couples pay all the costs themselves, and the rest some combination thereof. The bad news: Almost half the couples spend more than they had planned, and many go into debt to fund the festivities.

"In the last four years, everything bridal has gone through the roof," says Williamson, a recent bride herself. "It's become more mainstream, and the 'Today' show definitely had a hand in that."

Anguilla was already a popular resort for destination weddings, but the exposure on the show was "worth millions," says Grinnals. Even runner-up Lake Placid estimates the on-air mentions during just one week were worth $300,000 in free advertising to the Adirondack Regional Tourism Council. For a dress designer, jeweler, caterer, photographer, resort, or any of the thousands of vendors vying for the bridal buck, the key is high-profile exposure.

"The whole thing about reality weddings is that it gives people the ability to peek over the fence to see how others are doing it," says David Adler, founder of BizBash, the industry resource for corporate parties.

As influential as "Today" has been, nothing turns viewers into buyers like Oprah does -- her viewers scoop up almost anything she likes. "It's literally a career changer," says celebrity wedding planner Marcy Blum. In print, brides turn first to InStyle Weddings or Martha Stewart Weddings for the latest trends, and TheKnot.com is the dominant Internet resource. "It is a cult," says Williamson with a laugh. And of course, the golden egg is anything at a celebrity wedding.

So many choices, so few trust funds. Of course brides overspend. They want a dress like Renee's or a ring like Katie's or a cake like Sandra's. They want a $250,000 celebrity wedding on a $25,000 budget.

And, increasingly, couples want someone else to pay for it -- demanding cash-only gifts, or worse, asking guests to "sponsor" wedding expenses such as flowers or photos in addition to a gift from an expensive bridal registry. Just when you think the greed and tackiness couldn't be any worse, along comes Star Jones Reynolds. The "View" diva could easily afford her lavish nuptials last year, but loudly traded plugs for freebies for her fantasy I-do's -- and topped the Women's Entertainment channel's "2004 Bridezilla Index."

If you want romance, head for your local bookstore. If you want obsession, hysteria and tantrums, click on bridal Web sites, where previously sane women descend into the lowest circles of wedding hell: out-of-control princesses, slacker or browbeaten bridesmaids, greedy couples and cheap guests.

Consider the bride who justified her one-night stand with a bridesmaid's fiance by saying, "I'm the bride. I outrank you." But it's tough to beat the Chicago bride who posted her vendor reviews on TheKnot last month. Her reception was "A++" perfect, even though one guest died of a heart attack during dinner. "I didn't know him," she wrote. "People die everyday. Would you have rather my wedding day was a disaster because of it? Please." When other women accused her of being "heartless," she replied that when she opened cards, she got to his and ripped up the check. "So, I am not a monster!"

The Happy Couple

Raley and Dale had no problem deciding on each other. Their wedding was another matter entirely. Getting married in St. Mary's County meant a huge, expensive party to accommodate all their family and friends. But that would've busted the budget for Raley, director of sales for the local Hampton Inn, and Dale, a health club manager. They tossed around the idea of a destination wedding. "I really have a tough time making decisions for myself," says Raley. "The options out there are overwhelming."

They became engaged last September, during "Today's" last wedding, and Raley predicted they would win the next contest. The theme this year was a "hometown" wedding, so they sent in a videotape about their courtship and their town. Gay activists protested when contest rules cited an engaged male and female, and NBC changed the policy, but the final four couples were, in fact, heterosexual -- and one was Mark and Sarah. St. Mary's County mounted a week-long e-mail campaign for them, and 197,000 viewers across the country weighed in. Raley and Dale found out they won on July 22, which took a massive load off her shoulders. "No research, no decisions, great options," she says.

"Today" show brides are anti-Bridezillas. They cede control entirely, exchanging everything exactly-the-way-I've-always-dreamed-of-dammit for an elegant, ratings-driven affair in front of 6 million guests. In return, they are guaranteed a showcase wedding, decided by a committee of thousands. As reality weddings go, this is first-class.

First viewer decision: Rings by Raymond Yard, A. Jaffe, Peter Storm or Scott Kay? A platinum set of Kay's rings won in 2001, and a set of $6,200, 19-karat yellow gold rings were part of the mix this year, representing the trend back to yellow gold. The odds of winning, says Kay, were small because of the overwhelming preference for white metal. Indeed, viewers selected Yard's platinum eternity band with 26 diamonds for her and a platinum band for him. The winning rings were delivered on-air by Raley's two Yorkies, Hero and Mighty (who may or may not appear in the wedding ceremony).

It turns out "home town" is relative in TV land. Last week, viewers were presented with four options -- none of which was actually in the bride or groom's home town. The closest was the garden of St. Mary's College -- Raley, her brother and her father are all alumni. Annapolis City Dock, a historic mansion in Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club were the other contenders.

Mark Apter, vice president for marketing at St. Mary's College, had contacted "Today's" producers as soon as he realized a local couple was involved, and drafted a letter to alumni, staff and students to drum up support for the college. About 20,000 local people voted, but viewers opted for the beach club, about two hours away on Kent Island. Raley had mentioned on-air that she wanted to wed by the water, and the visuals for the club are perfect for television.

Yesterday, the four options for the wedding gown were revealed. After months of looking at dresses, the production staff selected four gowns that will flatter the bride and the setting: a vintage lace look by Anjolique; a silk ivory gown with platinum, gold and rose accents by Justina McCaffrey; an informal silk-chiffon sheath with a sexy plunging back by Amy Michelson; and a '50s glamorous strapless silk taffeta by Amsale. Viewers will click on their favorite, and Friday morning Raley will discover which gown she'll wear next month.

And so it will go each week, until the day of this modern fairy-tale wedding -- a bride's and marketer's dream.

Sarah Raley, the winner of a free wedding on the "Today" show, is fine with the fact that an online vote will decide her bridal gown. "No research, no decisions, great options," she says.Sarah Raley, right, looks at wedding-gown options with "Today's" Katie Couric, left, and TheKnot.com's Carley Roney.Bride-to-be Sarah Raley and her mom, Denise, went to New York yesterday to check out wedding gowns, leaving fiance Mark Dale, left, behind in St. Mary's County.