YouTubers bring audience to Ford-sponsored NBC reality series

Think reality TV is saturated with product placement? Meet Escape Routes, just finishing its run on NBC (s CMCST) Saturday nights at 8 PM (as well as on Hulu), and using large amounts of screen time to sell you Zynga games, iPads (s AAPL) and, above all else, the Ford Escape. Despite the level of salesmanship involved, though, there are some interesting digital innovations in the structure of the show and in the casting.

The show, co-hosted by ubiquitous representative of online culture iJustine, features six teams competing against each other in various challenges. Not much new there. The real innovation, though, happens through the official website, created by digital ad agency Rokkan, which allows viewers not only to interact with the contestants, but also to actually participate in the competition as members of “virtual teams,” helping their favorite duo win challenges. In addition, the site tracks contestants’ rankings, which is where things get interesting.

In the first episode of the show, Escape Routes quickly introduces viewers to the teams: six pairs of photogenic young people (seriously, one team consists of two models). And while the teams are given arbitrary names based on the color of their product-placed cars, the White Team is far better known online as #TeamYouTube. Brett Lemick and Ross Everett, known on YouTube (s GOOG) as BrettTheIntern and TheRossEverett, have both worked with YouTube talent company Maker Studios‘s network of channels.

This online presence gave them an early leg up in building their virtual team. “As soon as they were cast on the show, they started encouraging the audience they already had to follow the show — they hit the ground running,” Rokkan VP of Technology Jim Blackwelder said in a phone interview. In the premiere, as contestants struggle to engage their social networks to solve a basic challenge, Lemick and Everett are shown easily setting up their live feed and interacting with fans.

With support from other YouTubers like ShayCarl (a Maker Studios co-founder), Lemick and Everett are dominating the competition. On the eve of the final episode, the pair were in second place, but they’ve been in first place in previous weeks. And here’s the most important metric: They currently have over 8,400 fans on the site, by far the most out of the other teams (brother musicians Drew and Derek have the second highest number of fans at approximately 4,200).

That matters to Rokkan because one of the primary ways the company measures success for this branded content is through site traffic. While the official site’s use of Ford logos and language is relatively subdued, “Every moment on the site is engagement with the brand,” Rokkan CEO John Noe said via phone.

The product placement is blatant but this level of online and offline engagement is intriguing. If this sort of audience interactivity is the future of reality TV, then casting directors might want to rely heavily on YouTube creators going forward. Because when it comes to challenges based on building an online audience, the advantage an experienced YouTuber has is distinctly unfair.