HGTV - Friend or Foe?

published on July 17, 2009. After reading Hooked on Houses' most recent blog  "The Truth about 'House Hunter's' on HGTV", this entry was just begging to be re-posted!)

I’m going to let you in on a big secret today. Those half hour makeover shows you’re watching on HGTV? Well, they actually take a lot longer than half an hour to design and shoot.

Ok, so it’s not really a secret. 

But I think it’s time to shed some light on what really goes on behind the scenes of your typical HGTV design show, because honestly, I’m tired of the perception that design experts should be able to just whip up a solution to any given problem at a moment’s notice. Do you expect your doctor to finish up your open heart surgery in ten minutes because that’s how quickly you saw it done on the Discovery Channel? I know, I know - picking out colors for your master bedroom isn’t exactly heart surgery, but it also isn’t quite as quick and simple as the typical home makeover show would like you to believe. 

Take this “Divine Design” makeover by Candice Olson (and team), for example:

Here’s how Candice describes her design process on HGTV’s website:

“...I designed some mission-style cabinetry with a media center and storage...”

“I went for a layered look: gray/pewter damask on the duvet and shams, metallic fabrics for the bedskirt and pillows, and soft linen fabric with a glittery metallic thread on the headboard...”

“I created a traditional valance and drapes of luxurious silk...”

“I covered up the unsightly radiator with a long, white box cover...”

“I added a touch of the whimsical by putting up fabulous mirrors along one wall that were handmade using a surface etching technique; these mirrors were made to resemble the damask pattern on the couple's bed.”

I don’t know about you, but this project seems like quite an undertaking! Custom bedding and window treatments? Custom built-ins and a radiator cover? Custom mirrors with a “surface etching technique”?!? 

Now, I know that Candice Olson and the producers are not claiming that the designs are completed in just half an hour. That would be preposterous. But they aren’t telling the viewer there is no way in hell this would ever be completed in half an hour - you’ll be lucky if you can have this project finished in 3 months!  

As someone who’s been behind the scenes on a few makeover shows, I feel it is my obligation to homeowners, renters and designers to tell it like it really is. 

First, these shows begin with the search for the “perfect” home and the “perfect” homeowners. The home must be large enough to shoot in, and the homeowners must be willing to pretty much let the crew do whatever they want. Sometimes the homeowners must also fork out some of their own cash to help pay for the “free” makeover. The homeowners themselves must be perky and likable characters, and be absolutely thrilled at the prospect of being featured on a television show. (Finding these homeowners is not always an easy task.)

Next, the design concepts are developed by a team of people - art department, producers, production assistants, consultants, hosts, nannies, caterers...anyone in the vicinity of the show’s development can be a knowing or unknowing contributor to design ideas. And, believe it or not, the host of a show is sometimes not even involved in the design. 

After the design concepts are developed (which can take weeks or even months, by the way)  the craziness begins. There is usually a very small budget and never enough time. The producers put their team of people to work fast and furiously. Stylists purchase props by the truckload. Production assistants take measurements and design consultants draw floor plans. “Before” photos are taken (always in poor lighting for maximum “before and after” effect.) And the script is written. Yes, there is a script. Not always a good one, but it exists. 

Finally, production and filming begins. More craziness ensues. Hair and makeup people? Check. Catering? Check. Filming permits? Uh-oh. Who forgot to get a permit? Well, we can just try to shoot without one and hope no one stops us. Lighting, props, construction crew, stylists, homeowners, pets, sponsors, etc., etc., etc. Needless to say, the shooting itself doesn’t happen in half an hour either. A one room makeover show can easily take several days to shoot. And I won’t even begin to get into post-production and re-shoots.

With all this said, is HGTV a friend or foe of the design world? It is a friend in the sense that it has connected with millions of viewers and given them a general sense of DIY confidence (along with a Cliff Notes version of design education.)  But at the same time, HGTV has also given viewers a distorted perception of reality. And that can be a huge detriment to the design world. It seems that as long as viewers keep in mind that HGTV is a business, and that its main objective is to entertain, HGTV shows are relatively harmless. But the second that a viewer perceives the show as a realistic representation of what happens during an actual “makeover”, HGTV becomes a very unlikeable foe - one that off-camera designers can have a difficult time debunking. 

So, go ahead and watch your favorite makeover shows. Just remember, while you are witnessing entire kitchen remodels taking place before your very eyes that a real world designer is going to need a more than half an hour to develop a real world kitchen. 
Any HGTV fans out there? Any haters? Is the half hour makeover show your friend or foe?

Previous Comments from original post:
Interesting! I love getting the behind-the-scenes scoop. I'm going to link to this in my weekend round-up. Thanks!
Thursday, June 3, 2010 - 08:19 AM
This was so interesting!! I figured there was always a lot going on behind the scenes, so to read about all this is fascinating!
Thursday, June 3, 2010 - 11:23 AM
Thanks for stopping by, Julia and Erin! Yeah - I wrote this awhile back. Had some great comments, too, until iWeb decided to eat them all up. Of course, these are just my experiences, but after reading your blog, Julia, I think there are many others who have experienced these very same things. One of my friends in LA was considering doing a garden makeover show but declined because they wanted him to cough up a few grand for the job. And no compensation. Another show I worked on, we ended up taking things away from the homeowner after filming because we were over budget. It was so sad. They were like, "we don't get to keep this stuff?" We just said, pick your favorites. If you want anything extra, you can buy it. It seemed like such a fraud.

I'd love to hear others' stories if they have any! Unfortunately, I think many of us designer/stylist people are afraid to speak up because we might risk our chances of being on HGTV someday. Oh, well.
Thursday, June 3, 2010 - 02:31 PM