As everyone knows, This Old House began the television remodeling program business some 25 years ago. The show's original premise was disarmingly simple: A couple of Northeastern yuppies, armed with a seven-figure budget, matching funds from PBS, a team of the finest contractors and tradespeople available, and another place to live, could expect a very nice finished project.
This Old House has stayed valuable because the show has never pulled any punches. By its realistic definition, remodeling is expensive, time-consuming, and requires a host of skills from everyone involved. Projects often last a whole TV season. Contrast that with what I call today's “remodeling porn” industry, with whole cable networks devoted to almost nothing else. Even the broadcast networks are getting into the act.
Unreality TV I call the programming remodeling porn because, like other pornography, it bears no resemblance whatsoever to real life. The projects appear to be completely finished in 22 minutes (between commercials), the “crews” work for free using ridiculously low materials budgets, and the homeowners typically react with ecstasy. I guess it's as believable as anything else you see on television. But the new breed of programming hurts our industry by creating a hydra-headed monster of unrealistic expectations. What do I mean?
- People who might not consider remodeling before the “porn” programming took over are now hot to trot. Why wouldn't they be? In the alternate TV universe, remodeling is quick 'n' easy, costs little, and is always done by a fun, wisecracking crew. On the new shows, no mention is made of the extensive time required by the design and planning processes, let alone all the mitigating factors that enter every project.
- Acceptable quality work is featured on maybe 10% of the remodeling shows I've seen. That's because the new TV porn format is based on all flash and no substance. Of course, inspection of any details is impossible, because the shows are typically cut at the pace of an MTV video. If just what you can see in the quick bites is unacceptable, imagine what bright light and a careful look would reveal.
- Standards are further lowered by the “gang” feature, where if a crew of two is good, 100 is better, and too many ain't enough. Everybody in the business knows the quality of the finished product is only as good as the skills of the worst guy on the crew. It doesn't matter if Michelangelo is painting the ceiling when Gomer Pyle is the trim carpenter. But try telling that to the TV remodeling show devotee. “Wouldn't it go faster if you had a bigger crew?” is a popular question.
So how does this programming hurt us? TV remodeling porn makes remodeling contractors the bad guys, because we're always in the position of dashing the prospective client's fantasies. As we all know, projects cost a whole lot more than anything we see on the new breed of TV programming. A good contractor can certainly bring a project in on time, but nothing's going to happen in a weekend. Quality work is not done by a swarm of semi-skilled laborers working as fast as they can. Worse, the poor work product standards featured in most of these shows make inexperienced viewers less likely to know and appreciate good work when they see it. That makes business tougher for good contractors because our skills and standards become devalued.
The next time you're bidding a job, it might be wise to find out how much and what kind of television your prospect watches. —Jonathan Ward is a small custom remodeling contractor and builder of architectural details in Durham, N.C. He can be reached through www.jonathanward.com. He does not watch much television.