TLC's Trading Spaces is a breakout hit, at just $90,000 an episode
By John M. Higgins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/26/2002 8:00:00 PM
Home-improvement shows don't get a better "money shot" than this. Pam is led into her suburban Tacoma, Wash., living room, where two good friends and a designer have worked two days on a surprise redecoration. Pam and her husband have in turn been redecorating a room in the friends' house. Now it's time for "the reveal," when a TV host escorts Pam—her eyes tightly shut—into her house to see the makeover for the first time.
Her friends had repainted her living room walls chocolate brown. And the bricks around her fireplace—the fireplace she begged not be touched—were now concealed behind a white wood panel.
Pam began sobbing. Hard. "I have to leave the room," she choked out. Fortunately, she neglected to turn off her wireless mike, so fans got the audio of her crying from the next room. She is now forever known to fans as Crying Pam.
And there are many, many fans of TLC's breakout hit, Trading Spaces. Since its launch in September 2000 as a late-afternoon show, its ratings have steadily grown to the point where the show regularly scores a 2 or 3 Nielsen household rating in prime time, peaking one Saturday night in April at a 3.2 for a "celebrity" episode featuring but a single Dixie Chick. That was an all-time household record for TLC, which that night also beat all broadcast networks in adults 18-49.
And each hour-long episode costs TLC a mere $90,000, a fraction of what broadcast networks spend.
Trading Spaces wasn't expected to be this big. "We really saw it as a fringe show, revitalizing our how-to slate," said TLC Programming Vice President Roger Marmet.
TLC needed to spruce up its late-daytime schedule, which started with soft, woman-targeted chronicles, such as A Wedding Story and A Baby Story, and then shifted into "hammer-and-nails" shows. Three years ago, then-General Manager Jana Bennett saw that the abrupt shift disturbed TLC's audience flow, driving many women away. She wanted a better bridge between early and late afternoon.
Months earlier, TLC executive producer Steve Schwartz's wife had pointed him to an article in Metropolis magazine about the BBC's Changing Rooms, which was part game show, part home-improvement show. The premise was simple. Two couples (friends or relatives) trade houses. Armed with a £500 budget ($1,000 in the U.S. version), a designer and a carpenter, contestants repaint, reupholster and accessorize a single room in 48 hours. Neither side gets to see the room until it's finished.
Schwartz realized it might be a good 4 p.m. ET bridge, to carry TLC's 0.4.-0.5 early-afternoon household rating through.
Repeating the British episodes wouldn't work well in the States, so TLC licensed format rights from Basil Productions , creator of CBS reality series Big Brother and now a unit of Endemol, which makes NBC hit Fear Factor. BBC America was scheduled to carry Changing Rooms, so TLC christened its show Trading Spaces.
TLC asked several producers to bid on the show and picked Ross Television, which is accustomed to TV-on-the-cheap through shows on TLC sister net Discovery Channel, as well as HGTV and TNN. Although the first season's ratings were strong, expenses ran too high. "The biggest expense you have in a show like this is travel," Schwartz said, pointing to the 15 permanent producers, designers and crew. "Ross is located in Knoxville, Tenn., and the travelling nature of the show made it very expensive."
So TLC put out another request for bids and gave the show to Banyan Productions, which is located in Philadelphia, closer to a wider variety of East Coast markets.
What's the appeal? Although there are often strained reactions to some of the designers' stranger color, upholstery or lighting choices, most homeowners express happiness, not outrage.
Banyan producer Denise Kramsey credits the recurring cast of designers, carpenters and host Paige Davis: "Fans really identify with them."
Self-described addict Karen Manghisi, a New Jersey college admissions director, likes the way the contestants do all the work but are largely at the mercy of the designers' sometimes odd whims. The designers "seem to especially enjoy raising the bar with their designs, knowing full well the neighbors have little power to stop them."
TLC is in production on a third season of 80 episodes, hopefully sprinkled with a few celebrities. Conversations have been held with Valerie Bertinelli, Rosie O'Donnell, Danny Bonaduce and Joan Lunden. (No appearance fees are paid, and the celebs actually have to do the labor.)
And, of course, TLC is inevitably looking for imitations. Marmet said the BBC is producing While You Were Out, a show in which, say, a husband sends his wife to her sister's house for a weekend, then redecorates the kitchen. Meanwhile, a crew is spying on the wife with hidden cameras to see what she's doing while the husband is working. The show launches July 6. Spooky.
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