Design TV vs. Reality

By Linda Merrill
Blog- Design TV vs Reality 01

This Old House, Design Divine, Design on a Dime...if your clients' only experience with remodels and design is TV, they're going to have some misperceptions about how it works – and how much it really costs.

Why is it that we're always so afraid to talk about the price of things? I believe that the lack of real price sharing is the single biggest negative that stems from design television. Starting with This Old House which premiered back in 1979, home renovating and decorating shows have shown the highs and lows of the process without direct relation to the budgets involved. This has done such a disservice to the consumer on so many fronts.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I worked for several years at WGBH Boston, the producers of This Old House until it was sold to Time, Inc., although I did not work on the production end. I do know, however, that there has always been viewer confusion about how much the homeowners paid towards their renovation projects, how much was paid for by the production and how much free stuff was donated. I believe it varied project to project, but the homeowners did pay for everything, except the salaries of the "boys", aka Norm Abram, Tommy Silva, Rich Trethewey and the host (Bob Vila, Steve Thomas or Kevin O'Connor). Additional contracting services were likely also discounted or given for free in lieu of the promotional value and some appliances and other goods were probably also discounted or donated. Regardless of final actual costs and who paid them, there was still a real-life cost associated with the projects that wasn't shared. You'll never see the cost of a project if the homeowner privately hired all the same contractors and purchased the goods and materials at standard retail prices.

Design TV vs. Reality
Photo courtesy of Catherine Kwong Design

Of course, This Old House is not alone. Candice Olsen's Divine Design which is produced in Canada and airs on HGTV in the U.S. It works the same way This Old House does: The design team is paid by the production and the homeowners pay for goods and materials, with discounts from various vendors as available. Additionally, the final reveal and glamour shots of the room projects are fully staged with art and accessories that are borrowed from local stores or from the producer's inventories. The homeowner's may choose to purchase these, or they are removed when the production wraps up. Unlike This Old House which airs over several months and one can see seasons change during a house renovation, viewers of Divine Design get very little sense of how long a project takes and how much work is done off-camera. The scope of the projects are vastly different, but the point remains. How long does a gut-level room renovation take from first client meeting to fully decorated finale - and what would it have cost if the design/build team was hire privately?

In my view, This Old House and Divine Design are the true elites in design television. The work itself is consistently among the best and most professional to be seen. But viewers are not at all educated about the real costs of doing beautiful work. On the other end of the spectrum are shows like Trading Spaces on TLC and Design on a Dime on HGTV.  Both shows were wildly popular when they aired and certainly jump-started the careers of several now well-known decorators and design personalities. But the work itself was generally fairly mediocre; it was rushed and probably not at all at the level that the break out design stars would have done in their own private practices. Without true disclosure of the real cost of projects, the viewers were left with unrealistic expectations. While we all remember telegenic carpenter's Ty Pennington and Amy Wynn Pastor on Trading Spaces, we were completely unaware of the cadre of off camera carpenters and workers that it really took to build out the two spaces in a mere 48 hours.

In the post 9/11 period when nesting and the haven of home were at all times highs and so too were home values, design came to the masses as it never had before. Design programs became "must-see TV" and the subject of water cooler conversation. Shelter magazines were also going gangbusters. The upside was that more people took interest in their homes and felt empowered to tackle projects they might not otherwise have considered. This was a benefit to the big box home stores, most definitely.

But as many designers soon began to realize, the value of quality and the work of design and building professionals was diminished greatly, simply because of the "fast and cheap" message. And with the higher end shows like Divine Design and This Old House never revealing their bottom lines, there was a lack of knowledge on both ends of the spectrum. Unlike a shelter magazine that showcases beautiful homes as inspiration or aspiration, a television show is set up to feel more educational and empowering.  Unfortunately, without full disclosure about costs and time frames, viewers are left missing a large and important piece of the puzzle, which doesn’t help them and is certainly a detriment to the design profession.

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Linda Merrill is a residential interior decorator based in Massachusetts. Linda's design style can be described as "comfortable luxury" and she believes in working closely with clients throughout the entire design process. Her clients are mainly located between metro-Boston and Cape Cod and the Islands. Linda writes a nationally regarded design blog called ::Surroundings:: and is the host of the design podcast series The Skirted Roundtable.