ABC bets on extreme home show in prime time
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/29/2004 7:00:00 PM
Plan of Action
Set out the good china. When ABC puts a home-redecorating show in prime time, it's clear lifestyle programming—a thriving genre on cable—has earned a seat at the table. ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition follows the success of TLC's Trading Spaces and countless HGTV shows. The difference is, on a big broadcast net like ABC, size matters. More than 10 million people tune in for the tips.
Lifestyle shows, loosely categorized as a program where a person or a living space is "transformed," are a staple on cable, morning shows, and syndicated talk shows. Prime time is another story. They've struggled to find a home both on broad-based cable nets and in broadcast. And the misses largely outnumber the hits.
"In a world of American Idols and Joe Millionaire, you need an outrageous hook," says Kathryn Thomas, associate director of Starcom Entertainment Media.
With Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, ABC's new hope for its Sunday 8 p.m. ET slot, emphasis is on the "extreme," tearing down and rebuilding a house in seven days. The challenge for producers, says David Goldberg, president of Endemol USA, which is behind Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, is crafting a lifestyle show that scores in prime time.
Niche-oriented cable nets, he says, "know who their viewers are and what their real interests are." The Food Network labors for cooks and foodies. MTV targets hip young eyeballs. On broad-based networks, though, "you are trying to service a much larger spectrum. You have to bring something for everybody."
In an effort to cozy up to viewers, the show hits the traditional hot spots. To attract women, it grabs hunky Trading Spaces carpenter Ty Pennington. For young men, construction and gadgets abound. The "reveal" gives the show its dramatic moment. The trick is scheduling.
In a general-entertainment lineup, lifestyle shows are islands between dramas and sitcoms. "The challenge is to make something big enough that viewers can find you. There are entire channels built on lifestyle shows," admits Elizabeth Porter Hogan, USA's head of non-scripted programming.
Indeed, Scripps Networks has created four lifestyle channels: Food Network, HGTV, DIY, and Fine Living. Each corners a lifestyle segment and offers original series round-the-clock. "For a network that doesn't have history in a category," says HGTV President Burton Jablin, "it is hard to venture out and do one or two shows."
TLC may be more eclectic, but it still traffics exclusively in non-scripted and transformational shows. Its biggest star, Trading Spaces, is the standard bearer for home-remodeling, spawning at least a dozen imitators but no real competitors. On TBS Superstation, there was House Rules. USA Network tried House Wars. Even artsy A&E jumped in with House of Dreams. Lifetime chimed in with Merge. In each case, the shows under-delivered their channel's prime time average. (TBS's House Rules is getting a second season.)
There is, however, one important caveat: Advertisers love them. They get sponsorships and heavy product placement. Sears, for example, prominent on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. In some instances, the advertiser even picks up part of the production costs.
Makeovers aren't always a guarantee. On FX's Todd TV, also an Endemol show, viewers voted on life decisions for
30-year-old California slacker Todd Santos. After several episodes, fewer than 500,000 viewers watched. "It's harder to get recognized on general entertainment, but audiences find good programming wherever it is," says Goldberg.
That's certainly true for Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, last summer's breakout reality hit, which has spawned a cottage industry for its "Fab Five" experts. And when Queer Eye occasionally airs on NBC, it nabs respectable ratings, suggesting the show could hold its own on broadcast. But it's still a gamble. What if Queer Eye had cast the Fab Five differently? What if Trading Spaces players got more than $1,000 to remodel? There's no conventional formula for success.
Certain formats, notes one veteran programmer, are proven winners: "We know hidden-camera shows have worked for 50 years, from Candid Camera to Punk'd. Stranded-on-an-island shows work, from Gilligan's Island to Survivor."
Then there's lifestyle, the uncharted frontier. "I don't think it is as formulaic as people thought," the programmer adds. "This is a lot more squishy and new."
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