HGTV is a channel for dramatic remodels and dreamy properties.
But is HGTV popularizing cookie cutter design over regional character across America?
Today, On Point: How HGTV is transforming our homes — and us.
Alicia Hylton-Daniel, founder, interior designer and general contractor at Hylton Daniel Design + Construction. Worked on two episodes of HGTV’s “Love It or List It.”
Annetta Grant, assistant professor of Markets, Innovation and Design at Bucknell University.
Channing Kelly, realtor and broker at Ida Kelly Realtors in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Russell Morash, creator and former executive producer and director of the home renovation TV program This Old House.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Spring. Fall. You know the formula. A couple is unhappy with their current two bedroom home. They're wrestling with whether to upgrade it, knock down a few walls, finally finish that basement, or pull up stakes and find a new home. Or maybe it's a couple that knows for sure they want to renovate, they want to grow their family, and there's no room for a nursery.
Or there's no home office or downstairs bathroom. It's testing the limits of their relationship. Or maybe it's a couple with some extra cash looking for a second home in a tropical locale like Belize or Brazil. All of these scenarios include dreamy properties, dramatic remodels. Folksy DIY duos. This is the world of HGTV.
DENISE RAPPMUND: Just like a lot of reality TV where it's not actually reality, it's very much crafted and edited and scripted. But nonetheless, I think they do a really good job of taking our emotions somewhere else. It's taking us to fantasy land, which is the purpose of any entertainment.
Yeah, I find myself wanting to get sucked into "Oh, I could do this with our house, or that with our house, and it would be so much better, and look how easy it is."
CHAKRABARTI: That's Denise Rappmund, On Point listener in Santa Fe, New Mexico. HGTV is her guilty pleasure when she's staying in hotel rooms, and Denise, let me tell you, me too!
I check in, turn on HGTV, and let it run like the clock. Comforting, dreamy background to whatever real life issue I'd rather avoid. Here's another listener. This is Laura in Burbank.
LAURA: I live in California, and as you probably know, it's very expensive to live here. So I really am jealous of places around the country where people can live in huge houses for about half of what we pay here.
That's why I love watching House Hunters. And I also really love House Hunters International so that I can travel along with the people that are on the show.
CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. HGTV is currently the ninth most popular channel on TV, according to the U.S. television database. Average weekly audience during prime time is around 900,000 people.
The network is home to shows like "Bargain Block," "My Lottery Dream Home," "Unsellable Houses," "Good Bones," and there are so many more. The feelgood narratives sell us the idea that our dream home is just within reach. Now, I say this as an HGTV fan, but also as a hard-hitting public radio journalist. When anything gets that popular, you've got to look at the light and the dark, right?
Today, we're wondering, what kind of impact is HGTV having beyond providing 24/7 feel good TV.
Let's start with Alicia Hylton-Daniel. She's an interior designer and general contractor at her company Hylton Daniel Design + Construction in Durham, North Carolina. Alicia, welcome to On Point.
ALICIA HYLTON-DANIEL: Thank you, Meghna.
It's great to be here.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, I want to note that we did reach out multiple times to HGTV and no one from the network or the channel would actually join us. But we actually have you, which I think is better because you're an independent businesswoman, but you've also done work for HGTV. Can you tell me which show you worked for?
HYLTON-DANIEL: Yes. I did two episodes of "Love It or List It," probably back in, I think, 2018.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so that's the HGTV show where, what, interior designer Hilary Farr and there's a real estate agent named David Visentin, I think, they compete to see if they can find a couple or a family a new house, or if the family wants to stay in their current house that Hilary redesigns, right?
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so this is my first question to you. You are a well-established interior designer and contractor, but the show's premise is that Hilary Farr does all the design work. So why did they reach out to you?
HYLTON-DANIEL: They reached out to me for two reasons. One, obviously, they're coming or in the state of North Carolina, so they wanting to work with seasoned designers.
And for an added bonus, I'm the builder as well. So, I can certainly help with expediting or doing both. Helping with the design, it's a big show, so there's no way that she does it all. She overlooks and checks off on everything and then obviously to be able to get the drawings into permit and then hit the ground running and get the job or the project constructed.
CHAKRABARTI: I see. Okay. Now I also understand that you had to sign an NDA. I know there's some things maybe that you can't answer. Please feel free to tell me when you can't give us answers because of the constriction, the restrictions on the NDA that you signed. But over these two episodes, what was it like?
HYLTON-DANIEL: I had said no at first because I just, I don't know, I was just like one of these designers that had never really watched HGTV. I think a lot of us don't. And so I didn't want, I didn't know what I was getting into. So for the first show, I did just the build. I was general contractor of record and interestingly enough, it was a couple that I was familiar with. I didn't know them well, but I knew who they were. It was different. It's a very fast paced, definitely not the way typical, traditional construct, design build work, you have a very tight timeframe.
You are using trades that they vetted which can be a little sticky, often having to come in on the weekends. Because you have to over deliver, and as all construction, things never go right. And I think that's one of the things, like there's always supply shortages or things get delivered broken or the wrong thing comes on the job site or things are out of stock.
So it was like a juggling act.
CHAKRABARTI: Can I just jump in here for a second? When you mentioned supply shortages, I've seen a lot of episodes of HGTV where that happens. Like in the middle of the episode and they're like, "Oh my God the countertop that we ordered, they can't get it delivered for like another six weeks because the material they wanted is out." And then a miracle happens because one of the show's hosts picks up the phone and calls in a favor and boom, the next day, the supply is there.
Is that real? (LAUGHS)
HYLTON-DANIEL: Possibly not. I know that a lot of it has, obviously there has to be a little bit of a sensationalism, right? You're not going to watch something that's just dull. So a lot of that is to keep you after the commercials, that you come back to watch the rest of the episode. I always laugh at or scoffed at the structural component of it, right?
Like when they need like an LVL or a beam, or they can't take down this wall. Those are things that people in the industry would have done well ahead. You cannot submit drawings for permitting without a structural engineer's letter or drawings, which would assure that a wall can certainly come down or what sort of structural building components like an LVL is needed.
CHAKRABARTI: What is an LVL?
HYLTON-DANIEL: It's a laminated. I always forget. It's a structural support. It is made out of, it's laminated, so that it doesn't twist or turn, buckle wood. It could be made out of steel. It allows a wall to be taken down. If it's a one-story house, you can have a flushed header.
You'd never see it. And if it's a two story, a lot of times it's a dropped header.
CHAKRABARTI: I see. Okay. Google tells me that it's laminated veneer lumber.
HYLTON-DANIEL: That's it. Laminated veneer lumber. I just always forget what the V, veneer.
CHAKRABARTI: That's all right. Like you're in the business. Everyone knows what LVL is in the business.
But for those outside of it, yes. Like you said, a type of structural composite lumber. Oh, comparable to glued laminated timber. I see. So definitely for strength and stability, but an engineered wood product. Okay. Before we nerd out on materials, let me get back to the main thing.
So the thing that we wanted to really explore in this hour is what kind of impact HGTV is having beyond just television, what's the truth versus fiction of what we see on the shows. So tell me a little bit more, like, how much did the production company that makes "Love It or List It" guide what you could do? When, how the process happened, what the design was, all of that, because you are an established professional.
Did they defer to you at all?
HYLTON-DANIEL: Yeah, they sought me out. Which is good. They're very selective on who they feel would be a good match. There is an aesthetic, because Hillary Farr is a designer in her own right and a good one. And she has her own aesthetic. And so there are people behind the scenes that have to help.
It's just, it's not possible for one person to do it all. I think it's in terms of kind of real life versus the HGTV and what I do and doing that show. It's definitely a lot different, right? I don't, the clients that are signing up for these shows don't really get much of a say, they are consulted and there is a little bit of understanding their aesthetic and doing things that they would, prefer like not giving them red cabinets.
But certainly, there's a certain aesthetic, right? There's a reason why sort of things look the same from show to show. There's a variation, but there's a certain palette, right? We've seen like the movement of the gray and white interiors, which I'm hoping has now come to a past.
CHAKRABARTI: What do you have against subway tile and shiplap? Come on. I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding. Oh my God. (LAUGHS)
I did not just intentionally dis Chip and Joanna, but I guess I might have. But so, this is exactly the point we're getting to. And I'm so glad you're with us, because not only do you know the nitty gritty of the actual construction, but as a designer, as well, you think through the whole process.
So are you saying that you think HGTV is, let's say, shepherding people who are on the show in a certain aesthetic direction, that's sort of spilling over into homes that will never have a camera inside of them?
HYLTON-DANIEL: Unfortunately, yes. I think, because I do this outside of HGTV and I am an actual design builder, a lot of times when I will, what I do is I call it like a matchmaker.
So I will meet with a client only by Zoom for 20 minutes for free, just to see if we're a good match. And oftentimes they will always defer to HGTV.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, Alicia, you'd said something a little bit earlier that really caught my attention. That they have sometimes unrealistic timelines for the work that's done on the homes that appear in the episodes.
How unrealistic are we talking about?
HYLTON-DANIEL: Obviously, it's a television show and they have to meet a deadline so they can air the show. So roughly you have about three months. And I always tell people, depending on the size of the renovation, it's almost like a pregnancy. You need about nine months.
But in their defense, they do mostly aesthetic. They don't necessarily take down many walls and they don't do the entire home.
HYLTON-DANIEL: So it is more of a smaller scope, but again, you're dealing with trades, right? You're dealing with all sorts of just things beyond your control that can make just meeting that deadline, almost just heartache. And you're working weekends and after hours and that sort of a thing.
CHAKRABARTI: But it still sounds a little unrealistic for the homes to be 100% finished on these kinds of deadlines.
HYLTON-DANIEL: Yeah, they don't, I've only done two and they certainly were not. We went back for a punch list. So while the show might have aired and the house was staged and propped and ready and pretty, we went back and finished the work and probably took another six weeks, six to eight weeks or so. But giving it our top priority, which again would not be how it would work in the real world.
There's just no way I could commit and do one job for not a very big fee and have that sort of be all that I do.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Yeah. Six to eight weeks of additional work to get all the items on that punch list done. That's amazing because at the end of every episode of every HGTV show, there's this like flurry of activity that the paint gets put on the walls and the home gets perfectly staged, and it seems like it happens in half a day or a day. Is that part of the show realistic? Because like sometimes the houses are so beautifully staged. I'm like, how did they get that done in a day?
HYLTON-DANIEL: Yeah. The staging's a lot. And it doesn't take a day.
HYLTON-DANIEL: The staging takes anywhere from two to three days and that is not even eight-hour days, like you start early and you're leaving after dinner sort of a thing. Yeah, it's a lot of work and I think that's when people are seeing this sort of fast design, their expectations are so unrealistic, and you cause designers like me a lot of anxiety.
CHAKRABARTI: Do you have to tell a client, your regular clients who won't come to you, we can do X Y Z that you want but it is going to take six months, not six weeks.
HYLTON-DANIEL: Yes, we explain all of that time and time again. I have actually a design process document that I send to potential clients before I even agree to do this virtual speed date, as I call it, and that ensures that they understand how the process works, who's on first and who's on second. That we won't do anything, as you mentioned, or as other contributors, we won't do anything cookie cutter. We just want to make sure that we're a good match for you. And I'm always having to talk down or explain that the HGTV is entertainment and it's just meant as a reference point.
CHAKRABARTI: You have to reach across the table or across the Zoom table, right?
And pat their hands and say, "This is not good bones, right?" (LAUGHS) This is real life. But they wanted you to do a third episode, right?
HYLTON-DANIEL: They did.
CHAKRABARTI: And you declined. Can you tell me why?
HYLTON-DANIEL: I declined. Yeah. I declined for many reasons. I wasn't on board, I didn't feel good about the project. And I also never set out, that was not the goal to work for others and do others a favor.
Do design and not necessarily get credit for it. I felt like I had really good projects and just wanted to know what my brand is and know who I am. And it's no discredit to them, but I'm just very, I started out in the commercial world and became a builder because I saw the shortcomings of what was happening and I didn't want to be associated with kind of this quick and dirty or as people call it, flipping homes.
I tell people the only things that should be flipped are pancakes and omelets. There's just a lot of thought and time. And just culture and consideration that should be done when one does dive into the world of design and build.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so I want to just get into a little bit more of the specifics about why you said no, because I think it really says a lot about, again, the aspect of HGTV that no one sees.
Now, they wanted to do, if I understand correctly, an episode about an affordable home, right?
HYLTON-DANIEL: And I don't know how much of this I can disclose, but pretty much, they were asking for services or looking for services to be donated. And I'm just not comfortable with reaching out to trades that already don't make a lot.
I think the assumption is that plumbers and painters, these are not high paying jobs. And so I'm not comfortable reaching out and finding that source of, or level or giving that away for free, especially to, as you said, a television show or a network that ranks ninth in the world and certainly has the resources.
And it's all, I don't know, it's all political and how all of that money works. And I certainly wasn't unhappy. I was just like, this is just not what I want to represent. This is not who I am.
CHAKRABARTI: I have to say some listeners probably just are looking askance at their radios right now because hearing that plumbers, especially, don't get paid a lot.
Maybe it depends on the market that you're in.
HYLTON-DANIEL: Yeah. I think that there's the person at the top, right? The owner of the company, but still. With that, I think with plumbing, people don't take into account the materials, the labor, the actual work, like no one wants to go underground into a sewage pipe or deal with any sort of venting, right?
Like it's a harsh, it's not a job that people necessarily sign up for. And it does take experience.
CHAKRABARTI: The other thing that you see sometimes on the HGTV programs is a challenge with the house that comes up that's beyond aesthetic. But I understand that in the third episode, that they wanted you to participate in, was it clear that they were going to take on those kinds of, all of those kinds of challenges if they came up in the house?
HYLTON-DANIEL: I think it was based on budget and there just wasn't a big budget. So I think it was going to be mostly trying to, obviously address as much as they could afford to address at the end of the day, the house has to, has to look pretty. So a lot of times, and not necessarily HGTV, but even just looking at these flip homes, these houses that we're seeing that are asking high dollar, but a lot of people are just putting lipstick on a pig, or as I say, lipstick on a turd.
HYLTON-DANIEL: Like they're just, they're not really You know, I always tell people, because they always have an unrealistic budget, and they want marble, and they want all of these things. And I say, the house has to have surgery before we can actually dress it. They're pretty clothes on it. If it's an existing house and an older house.
That either had building issues in the forefront or, we have weathering, right? In North Carolina, we get a lot of rain. These houses are built on crawl spaces and if they're older homes, those crawl spaces were not encapsulated like they are today. And even the encapsulation process took a while for it to come to perfection. So I'm talking about the stuff that's not sexy.
CHAKRABARTI: So I'm hearing you creep towards M-O-L-D.
HYLTON-DANIEL: Yes, which a house [should] not only look sexy on the outside. It has to be healthy, right? And I'm just not, I don't want to be a part of anything where that homeowner or, that person, is not going to first address those issues. Because it would, it will fall back on me as the licensed general contractor.
CHAKRABARTI: I see. I see. That makes a lot of sense. And things like dealing with mold are expensive. They stop everything else, right? Cause you have to take care of that before you can move forward with other changes to the home. So that's really interesting. Okay. One more quick question. And then we're going to bring another voice into the program, but who pays for all this stuff, Alicia?
And are the budgets, it sounds like you're saying the budgets that they talk about aren't realistic, but they only work if you're doing mostly aesthetic stuff. But, so who pays for it though?
HYLTON-DANIEL: It's been a while, but the homeowner is required to come up with a certain percentage of the renovation.
There are contributions like any other show, where manufacturers want to see their product on the show, so they will donate or provide certain fixtures or those types of things because they want recognition and branding.
CHAKRABARTI: Sure. That's when the camera zooms in on the box that says Lowe's.
HYLTON-DANIEL: Yeah. Exactly. (LAUGHS) Yeah. Or a certain faucet fixture or plumbing fixture. Or, sink vanity or that sort of a thing, or even a rug, or even you'll see even the commercials that air.
CHAKRABARTI: Of course.
HYLTON-DANIEL: Yes. Yeah. During that segment of the show. So I think people just see it all and it looks all shiny and polished and they just don't have a true perception of what all of this involves.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, that's a good point. Not all of us can do product placement in our own homes in exchange for radically discounted goods. Okay. You said something earlier, which I think is the heart of part of what we're talking about, that HGTV is entertainment. But that what happens when that entertainment sort of enters the minds of homeowners as you can turn this into a reality.
So we heard from a ton of people when saying we were going to talk about HGTV. One of them is Richard Helman. He's an On Point listener in Hartford, Connecticut. And he called us to tell us that he rarely watches HGTV anymore. Because of all those dramatic demo scenes, which now he says are only for the camera.
RICHARD HELMAN: The only two shows about home improvement worth watching are "Ask This Old House" and "[Holmes] Make It Right." Most of the stuff on HGTV is just entertainment. When they're smashing walls or demolishing cabinets, most contractors — and I was a contractor years ago — will disassemble things. And now you can bring items that you've removed from a house, to remodel, to places where they will resell them.
CHAKRABARTI: I should say, though, that HGTV doesn't really deny that they're in the entertainment business. Now, we did request HGTV, if someone from the channel or the company could join us. They declined. But Loren Ruch, who's head of content at HGTV, oversees programming and development behind shows like "Bargain Mansions," "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," "Property Brothers," "Forever Home."
And he has spoken freely about what HGTV is in the business of. So here's Ruch talking about his job on the podcast "Mondays With Mindy" back in September 2020.
LOREN RUCH: That's the core of what, if someone was to say, "What do you really do for a living?" It's getting to tell stories. And I just happened to do it for HGTV, where I feel like there's stories that always have blue skies and happy endings. And it's a world that makes me proud to be part of. I'm not ever embarrassed to put my name on one of my shows, because it's the type of programming that people sit and watch and hopefully, you'll feel either happier or smarter or more inspired as a result.
CHAKRABARTI: Joining us now is Annetta Grant. She's Assistant Professor of Markets, Innovation, and Design at Bucknell University and joins us from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Professor Grant, welcome to the show.
ANNETTA GRANT: Hi, Meghna. Thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: So you've done some research on HGTV. What question did you want to ask about the impact of this company.
GRANT: Yeah, I was curious to know what was happening when people see these HGTV shows or any kind of home renovations media. And essentially what we found was that people see these shows or read magazines, social media, and that actually changes the way that they view their own homes. So increasingly these media outlets have made the home more of a financial asset to be maximized.
So that means when people look around their own homes, they're looking around their homes now with an eye to what everyone else wants. And not necessarily what they want. And as a result, people are feeling uneasy in their own homes.
CHAKRABARTI: Uneasy. Okay, but we'll get to that in a second, but hasn't trying to keep up with home design trends like always been a thing in America?
GRANT: Historically, if we think about, the home was really thought of as a place that should be yours and should be a reflection of who you are and your personality, right? So if we look at homes, especially post-war, when a lot of American suburbia was being built. The idea of having color in your home, that was a reflection of who you were, was really encouraged.
And it's that it's changed now, where media is really much more pushing this idea that your home should meet certain standards. Standards that are set by these media outlets.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I want to come back to that in a second because I'm still not entirely clear about how what we're seeing now is different than what came before. But maybe your study will help reveal that a little bit. Because I understand that you were in part inspired to do this because you started noticing that people were ripping out what I would consider basically new kitchens, right?
That were maybe five years old in favor of something brand new. Is that right?
GRANT: That's right. I had noticed that people to me were ripping out things that were perfectly and fully functional. So I watched people rip out a five or a 10-year-old kitchen. And this was at a time in my life I had done some backpacking in Central and South America. And at that time, any renovations that I saw people doing in those regions were really done with an eye to, "How am I going to make this last for generations of my family to come?" And when I came back to Canada, which is where I'm from and where I was living, it was really different. Where people were ripping out parts of their homes that were perfectly functional.
And not only that. But using a lot of money to do that and in some cases taking out extra mortgages to do that. And I thought, "What's going on here?" That people are really prioritizing spending their money in this kind of way instead of retiring early or saving up for their children's education or even taking a big trip or investing in friends and family.
And I thought, "What's going on here?" So I wanted to get to the bottom of what was happening and what was really putting an emphasis on the home and having it up to these certain kind of standards.
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, that's interesting. It sounds like you're talking about a shift towards being on trend versus longevity.
That makes me think of fast fashion, right? Versus, let's say slow, thoughtful design that, that's classic and will last for a long time. So we're going to explore when we come back more about how you measured the HGTV effect, if I can call it that.
CHAKRABARTI: Today we're talking about HGTV and the impact that the network company might have had or might be having on people and how they view their homes well beyond that of just feel-good TV.
And we heard from so many folks, including a realtor, Channing Kelly, who's a realtor in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And she told us she has noticed a difference in the kinds of things her clients are thinking about when looking for a new home, which she attributes, at least in part, to HGTV.
CHANNING KELLY: They are really motivated by aesthetics.
And I find that I have to bring to their attention frequently this issue of, "Okay, aesthetics is one thing. How does it look? Is it beautiful? But underlying all of that are the mechanicals of the house. And what's the condition of the heater? What's the condition of the roof?" And so I always try to educate my clients about not letting the aesthetics of a property overwhelm the fundamentals of the property.
CHAKRABARTI: And what are the aesthetics her clients are now looking for? Once again, here's Channing.
CHANNING: I do see much more demand for that clean line and sleek look. I think we trail a little bit behind some of the coastal markets, but new construction, which tends to really focus on current trends right now, is very strongly contemporary. White tones, gray tones, sleek lines.
Not a lot of extraneous features, a very clean look.
CHAKRABARTI: Again, that's Channing Kelly, an On Point listener and realtor in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Professor Annetta Grant, I want to hear a little bit more about how you went about in your research studying the HGTV effect. How did you measure that in terms of how people are seeing their homes?
GRANT: Yeah. It was really twofold. What we wanted to do was we wanted to get a sense for what are the messages that media is putting out about what your home should be. And then we wanted to combine that with also understanding, "What's the homeowner experience with renovating their own homes?" And then we wanted to see what was the overlap there.
So we really started with a media analysis. And for this, we analyzed a lot of HGTV shows. We also looked at home renovations magazines. We also looked at, we went to a home exhibition show to get a sense again for what are the messages being put out there. And I have to say, HGTV is really a leader in all of this, but we also wanted to look at just lifestyle magazines.
You can't check out of a grocery store these days without seeing a magazine telling you what your home ought to be, or you can't open Instagram without those same messages. So we really did a broad analysis to understand what are those messages that media is putting out there. And we found largely two big messages.
So on one hand, the home needs to meet certain standards. And like Alicia was talking about, those standards, for now, are things like the gray and white movement, right? So those markers of standardization are gray walls and floors, white granite or quartz countertops, industrial style appliances, that open concept kitchen, dining room and spa like bathrooms, right?
And in a lot of these shows, homeowners are really being celebrated when their homes look like those magazines, or they look like a spa magazine or they look like a hotel room, right? A lot of the aesthetic, the standardization is made for everyone and no one, all at once.
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, but okay, I got to admit.
I'm a fan of those gray neutrals. I know we went through a gray-ish period as well. But what I'm saying is, what's wrong with wanting to have your home look like it could have appeared in a magazine?
GRANT: Here's the interesting thing, right? Which is the other part that we found in these media shows and magazines is that there's this message being put out there that if your home doesn't meet those standards, then you're actually getting it wrong, and perhaps people might even think less of you for it.
So I'm sure many of your listeners and probably you, Meghna, have watched some of these shows. You'll know that a common script for a show like this is to have a camera crew go through a home with a potential buyer and together they go through the home, and they look around what the previous homeowners have done. And they point out everything that's wrong with it.
And not only that, they'll say things like, "If I lived here, I'd be too embarrassed to have anybody over." Or, "Can you imagine they put that backsplash with that countertop? Or, "What were they thinking when they put that floor in?"
And so it really gives this sense that there's some sort of critical gaze within your home that's ready to scrutinize and judge what you've done with the insides of your home. And as you mentioned earlier, this is happening inside homes that will never have a camera inside them.
CHAKRABRTI: Yeah. Yeah. I completely get what you're saying about that critical gaze, but since I'm talking a lot about my own relationship with HGTV, I will also admit that I am impervious to that gaze. Because the place that I live in still has the same paint on the walls as the previous owner.
It's got old carpet in the bedrooms. We just like never had enough time or money to do anything about it. So I am a HGTV watcher for entertainment purposes only. But Alicia, let me hear you on this. What do you think about what Professor Grant is saying?
HYLTON-DANIEL: I think it has a lot of value and she's right.
I think the one word that we haven't talked about is culture and being true to your culture. And yes, as an interior designer, when I do go to a client's house and I'm there to critique and offer my opinion, it's always taking into consideration the sensitivity of their culture. One size does not fit all, and I find interiors that are more not of that trend, more interesting, because that represents who that person is.
Now, as a designer, my job is to execute it in a way that it looks more, there's continuity. And there is beauty in that. But it's not to say because next door has done it. Or, this is how you should do it. And yeah, I think there's great value into what was said and understand like honing in on that, and that's why I don't watch HGTV.
I had to actually catch up on watching it when I was asked to do the show. Because for someone like me, it gives me anxiety because you're constantly looking at almost the same thing over and over again, and there's not a lot of cultural representation.
CHAKRABARTI: I completely see what you're saying, because, again, given the fact that it's entertainment and trying to reach a national market, I'm guessing that HGTV producers think that having homes that are truly representative of the cultural origins or values of the homeowner doesn't necessarily make for that sort of bland, please all kind of entertainment, right?
HYLTON-DANIEL: Correct. Uh Huh.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I want to just take a step back here for a second because, we're talking about the juggernaut that is HGTV. But of course, home innovation has been on American televisions for, in one form or another, for decades. And it all started with one particular show. Because long before HGTV, there was this beloved television program.
(MUSIC) BOB VILA: Hello, I’m Bob Vila. In the last few years, I’ve been rehabbing a number of houses in the Boston area. I call myself a designer-builder. (TALKING)
CHAKRABARTI: “This Old House” debuted on public television in 1979. Originally produced by WGBH in Boston, the same public TV station that brought chef Julia Child into American homes, “This Old House,” viewers got to know Bob Vila, along with master craftsmen such as carpenter Norm Abram and contractor Tom Silva.
(FOOTSTEPS) BOB VILA: Well, it’s really remarkable how much work you’ve done in this place, Tom. Now, how old is the house?
TOM SILVA: 1849, Bob.
VILA: Nice. Beautiful. Wow, this is the big country kitchen, huh?
SILVA: Yes, it sure is.
CHAKRABARTI: The show was the brainchild of then-WGBH producer Russell Morash, and though it’s been on TV for more than 40 years now, Morash says “This Old House” was initially intended as a one-time, 13-part series.
RUSSELL MORASH: I thought maybe that would have some appeal because every time I mentioned that I, as a television producer, was shingling a roof or erecting a wall or taking one down, people would say, “What are you doing? Why are you doing something like that?” They were very interested in it.
CHAKRABARTI: Morash had the skills, skills he learned from his father who was a carpenter. And Morash himself restored two different family homes. He says “This Old House” built on the success of another show he created for WGBH — “The Victory Garden,” which was all about gardening.
MORASH: Up until that time, everything was done inside the studios. And so I said, “Well, I don't want to do that. I don't want to try to do a gardening program in a baseless, soulless television studio.” And we'd have to drag everything in. I said, “Let's build it in the parking lot outside of WGBH.” So we built a garden with a greenhouse, and it was just at the end of the line that I could roll my cameras from the control rooms and studios at GBH outside on a shipping dock down the street to this garden.
CHAKRABARTI: He had to roll the cameras out because back in the day, TV cameras were built like bank vaults. Fortunately, by the time “This Old House” began shooting, cameras and microphones were far more portable.
Now unlike HGTV today, “This Old House” didn’t shy away from delving into the complicated minutiae of home renovation, like in this 1985 episode where Norm Abram and Bob Vila wrestle a new window into place.
NORM ABRAM: Now there’s not very much extra space to get this in. Frank, you have to lean the bottom and rest it right on the frame there, not too far in. And then, Bob, if you could grab the top.
BOB VILA: I’ve got a hold of it, yeah.
NORM ABRAM: Okay.
CHAKRABARTI: Morash says the audience loved it. And PBS picked up the show for a second season.
MORASH: Actually, showing people how you plant a tree and how you wire a fixture and sand the floor. The theory would be that the host would ask questions of the technic — technical person. What do you use a trisquare for? What is it used for? How do you do it? Where do you put your hands? These sort of nitty gritty questions that everybody needs to ask. That's what the show meant to do, to celebrate craftsmanship.
CHAKRABARTI: Morash has since retired. But “This Old House” is still running after more than 40 years. It’s a powerful brand with a magazine, a website and a spinoff called “Ask This Old House.” It’s now owned by the streaming company Roku. Even though he’s arguably one of the founders of DIY television, Morash is no fan of HGTV.
MORASH: I get a feeling with the few programs that I've had a chance to see on HGTV that it's more about, "What's the final product going to look like?" The hell with how we got there. We’re really only interested in the finished product. So we can say the wow factor.
CHAKRABARTI: Morash says as a former producer himself, he understands why they do it that way – it’s maybe more interesting, and definitely more entertaining. But he also thinks it’s less empowering for viewers.
MORASH: I just happened to come from a family where we fixed stuff. I can remember my father building a snowplow to put on the front end of an old car that he owned. And then we used that wooden snowplow to plow our driveway in the home that we were living in. I mean, that's where my experience comes from. We did stuff. We fixed it. We – I wouldn't say in every case we liked it. So, I mean, there are satisfactions that come with knowing that you know how to do something that somebody else would let others do for him.
CHAKRABARTI: Morash says there’s still a demand for in-the-weeds DIY stuff – and where does he say you go for that now? YouTube. Russell Morash, creator and former executive producer and director for the long-running home renovation show “This Old House.”
Professor Annetta Grant, what do you think about that?
Are we even right to compare a program like This Old House to what's offered on HGTV? Because, yeah, it's all television, so therefore, in a certain degree, it's all entertainment. But the goal of "This Old House" has always been quite different than what the goal of HGTV is.
GRANT: Yeah, that's right. And it has evolved as well with how our understanding of our own homes has evolved.
Historically, again, if we go back to thinking post war, what the home was about, it was really about building a home that was going to last for your family for many years. And, that kind of speaks also to a show like "This Old Home," where you were investing in the home. You were focused on making sure it had good bones and it was going to continue to provide a safe place for your family for many years to come.
Today, as we've been hearing is that the emphasis is really on the aesthetics and it doesn't go so deep into, "Okay, but what's under the aesthetics and, is the floor going to hold up and will the walls continue to stand in many years?" And so that focus on the aesthetic and making sure that it meets those standards.
To Alicia's point, it really causes some anxiety. Because you want to make sure that you get it right. And at the same time, when we think about that old idea of our homes, that it was a place for us and a place for our family and really a place that should reflect our own personalities or our culture.
People get anxious when that is ripped out of their homes. And that's what we saw in the interviews that we did with homeowners. Is that anytime they strayed too far from their own personality, that induced a lot of anxiety. And equally, anytime they wanted to bring something that was highly personal or representative of their culture into their home, that also created a lot of anxiety, because then they were sort of going down another path and straying away from that standardization.
CHAKRABARTI: So I see what you're saying, it does have some resonance with me that homes should be seen or traditionally were seen as investments for the long run, but now it's almost like a commodification of design.
But Alicia, we've got about a minute left. I'm going to give you the last word here as our design builder. When it comes down to people actually meeting with experts, no TV cameras in in the room, does it take long for you to get folks to reset what their values are when they want to do something different with their homes?
HYLTON-DANIEL: I will say this. The two words I always say when we first start that conversation is best practices, right? That's what we are here for. It's not just what's in trend. As someone that continues to watch "This Old House and "Ask This Old House." It is the process of the appreciation of the trades, the craftsmen, and the finished carpentry, and all of that package, and fixing the old before we top it with the new.