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Chuck Ross

Questions Finally Answered About the Bizarre Finale of ‘Ellen’s Design Challenge,’ and What Ellen Needs to Do if the Series Is Renewed

Mar 6, 2015

You’ve gotta love Ellen. In a country obsessed with winning and losing, she can’t bring herself to use the word “loser.” It’s just not a DeGeneres word. So when she was about to announce the winner of “Ellen’s [Furniture] Design Challenge” on HGTV this past Monday night, she told the two finalists that one of them was going to be the “winner” and that the other one was going to be the “not winner.”

And in a world where people prove over and over that they are capable of lying, cheating and behaviors that are far worse, Ellen sometimes has a hard time believing someone might actually deliberately deceive her, even when the evidence indicates otherwise.

Case in point is yesterday’s “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” segment wherein Tim McClellan was invited onto the show to explain why a piece of furniture he designed and built so closely resembled another piece in the marketplace.

Here’s the quick background: On this past Monday night’s finale of “Ellen’s Design Challenge,” McClellan — who had become a huge popular favorite on the short six-episode series — was crowned the winner. It was announced that he had won the $100,000 grand prize and an accompanying spread in an upcoming issue of HGTV magazine. Confetti covered the contestant, everyone hugged one another and it seemed that was that.

But then the show inexplicably continued, turning black and white for a while as a sign on-screen said “One Week Later.”

As I wrote in one of our news stories about this, that’s when viewers were told, matter of factly, that McClellan had been disqualified because of the similarity of his last piece of furniture to another piece of furniture already available in the marketplace.

An unseen narrator says: “After the finale, it was discovered there was an existing piece of furniture designed by European designer Simon Schacht that resembles Tim’s. That led to the conclusion that Tim did not fulfill the requirement of the final challenge, which was to create an original piece.”

tim-and-schachtScreen-grab from Ellen’s show, with the Schacht piece on top

We then saw the runner-up being told what happened. More confetti — for her this time, and end of show.

What we didn’t see was any more of McClellan.

Viewers took to social media and other places on the Internet and went ballistic. Here’s a representative sample of the many comments we received when we ran a news item about the finale:

Jim wrote: “What a farce! Similarities in design can always be found if you stretch your qualifications enough. [The original runner-up’s] final design was nothing extraordinary, but in fact resembled similar products found at such creatively original places like IKEA. A table with nested stools and a pull-out shelf looked like a project I would have made in 7th grade woodshop. Tim’s design, using stacked wood, was far more original and exuded quality and class. My Dad made a similar desk with sliding areas and hidden compartments in the 1930′s. Should I be collecting [residuals] for his original design? Ellen should be ashamed.”

A reader calling herself or himself “C” wrote: “I wonder why they were still checking out Tim’s design after the show. Shouldn’t that have been done earlier? I also don’t know how one person is supposed to know all the furniture designs in the world. If he was not aware he should not have been stripped from winning. They could have also awarded the same prize to the runner up. Seems a little harsh – especially for Ellen!”

And here’s what John had to say: “The whole show ended being a scam. How could anyone know that Tim’s design was similar to one out of millions over the decades of building furniture…I think Tim should sue, and my wife said that she would never watch anything that Ellen is involved with again! My wife watched everything that Ellen had ever been involved with and thought that she was a good person and a good host. Everything really stinks!”

So on yesterday’s edition of Ellen’s syndicated talk show she introduced Tim, explained what had happened and said, “So I wanted you to talk about this and how it possibly could have happened.”

[For this next part, someone needs to cue Brian Williams. THIS is how one does a mea culpa:]

After saying how nervous he was McClellan said, “This whole experience has been extraordinarily exciting and rewarding for me overall. Painful at times, for sure. But how could have this happened? I never heard of Simon – I’m not sure of his last name—

Ellen: Schacht—

McClellan: Schacht. And in my recollection I’ve never seen his piece of  furniture before. With that said, the similarities of the two pieces are quite compelling and I understand the decision made and accept it and recognize [the runner-up] as the legitimate winner of the show.

Preparing for this competition and over the last 20 years I’ve looked at millions and millions of pieces of furniture. And it’s quite possible and looks as though that piece somehow got lodged in my memory. And when Chip [his assigned carpenter on the show] and I were deciding and working toward the design and I saw that stack of lumber, I had a flash of a piece of furniture that would be brilliant for this show. And I owned it. And Chip and I built a fantastic, wonderful piece of furniture and it’s disappointing how this whole thing worked out and it’s been very taxing on me, of course.

He’s getting tearful at this point.

Now, if a reporter were interviewing McClellan, and not Ellen, this is where the reporter would have said: “Now, Tim, I understand you don’t recall seeing the Schacht piece before. So I was wondering if you could please explain what you told Chip in the limo as you were driving after you received your task for the show. He interrupted you at one point, but your complete remarks were these: ‘The real challenge with this, Chip, is to do something that’s signature, that’s that dynamic, in that time frame, and still looks like I designed it, not like it was designed by some, some other designer in some other country. It needs to look like it came from me.’ I’m sure no one gave your remark a second thought at the time, but, Tim, knowing what we know now, it seems as if right there in the limo — before you saw that stack of wood — that you knew what you were going to be building, and that you were worried that it wasn’t going to look like Schacht, who is not from this country. Could you please comment on this?”

Of course Ellen did not ask him that. And I’d like you to watch McClellan saying that, but HGTV is no longer showing any of the episodes from “Ellen’s Design Challenge” on its website. I only know about it because some of our commenters mentioned it, and since I had taped the show, I watched it again.

What Ellen did say in response to what McClellan said on her show is that she knows that lots of furniture is derivative of past furniture, and that she also knows that some people copy other furniture, but she knows that Tim “as a person would not purposefully have done that.” Furthermore, without mentioning any specifics, she said she will definitely be doing business again with Tim. She hinted that this could include making some of the furniture he designed for the show available to the public.

Why would Ellen want to be so accommodating to a person she had just disqualified? Because, as she also noted, Tim’s a huge crowd favorite. It’s good commerce.

But here’s some of what I find puzzling about all this. First, in the finale, when the judges are giving the assignment, one says that the two finalists can build “anything, as long as you wow us.” And the other judge says only that what they build must be “smart, innovative and surprising.”

Yet when McClellan was disqualified viewers were told it was because “Tim did not fulfill the requirement of the final challenge, which was to create an original piece.”

I guess that was just an unspoken rule, since it was never articulated by the judges, at least on this finale episode. So that’s the first thing that needs to be changed if the show returns. Just judge the pieces as pieces, whether they are copies or not, and whether the contestants do that deliberately or not (which you’re never going to know, anyway).

Here are some other questions I had, which were graciously answered for me, in email form, by Jeff Kleeman, who is president of Ellen’s production company, A Very Good Production. Jeff was also one of the executive producers on “Ellen’s Design Challenge.”

I wondered who tipped off the show about Tim’s piece being so close to Schacht’s. Jeff said: About a week after the final taping, we received an anonymous tip accompanied by an Internet image of the Schacht desk. We presume it came from one of the 200 people in the show’s studio audience who saw Tim’s final piece.

Chuck : When Tim was [initially] confronted with the fact his work wasn’t original, what did he say?

Jeff: He said pretty much the same thing he said on today’s episode of the ‘Ellen DeGeneres Show.’

Chuck: Why wasn’t his reaction shown on the finale?  

Jeff: We felt, given all the options, that the most respectful to Tim was to have this difficult conversation off-camera.

Chuck: After it was determined that he was to be disqualified, why didn’t you just tape a new ending to the show, showing Katie winning? Why show the ending of Tim winning at all? 

Jeff: We didn’t feel it was right to reshoot an ending that would have required scripted responses from our judges; we chose to present the story as it really happened.

A few things. Clearly the folks running the show wanted to have it both ways. If they really wanted to present the show “as it really happened,” then they would have included telling Tim and showing his initial reaction and explanation in the finale. Ellen’s responsibility (and I say Ellen since her name is in the title and she says the show was her idea) was first and foremost to the viewers, not to Tim. Ellen and her team are disqualifying Tim after crowning him the winner and they don’t let him give his side of the story because they are being respectful to him? Nah, I don’t think so. Besides, if they really believed that, Ellen would not have had him on her show yesterday.

Given that “Ellen’s Design Challenge” scored in the ratings, the show will most likely be back.

And given the uproar over the finale, the producers now have a ton of viewer comments about the show — what people liked and didn’t like about it. They should read the comments carefully and listen. These initial six episodes were taped very quickly last summer — all six in 21 days, with no weekends off, culminating in the original finale being taped on Aug. 20, 2014.

Slow it down and tape more episodes for season two. We need more contestants and perhaps more judges. A number of viewers didn’t like the “gender” part of the judging, saying that a piece of furniture had gender specific characteristics.

Most importantly, it seems to me — as I mentioned earlier — that the judges should judge pieces for what they are, based on a piece of furniture’s own merits, with no disqualifications regardless of how closely a piece may resemble one that is already in the marketplace. This is done very well on some of HGTV’s sibling networks, such as the Cooking Channel and the Food Network.

For example, they know that a soufflé is a soufflé is a soufflé. And I’ve never heard a judge on any of those competition shows tell a contestant that she or he has been disqualified because his or her soufflé tastes too similar to one a judge had at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant the night before.

Here’s the video of Tim McClellan on Ellen’s talk show yesterday:

17 Comments

  1. Excellent analysis of this situation and the show. The producers should certainly make reference to its main points before filming another season. The author’s point that originality was not mentioned as a qualification was astute.

  2. Isn’t it HGTV that this show was on?

    • Hi Dennis. Absolutely…That’s now been fixed.

      Chuck Ross
  3. ellen had plenty of reason to be ‘nervous’ when she had tim on her show. she shafted him but good….. stripped him of the title and the winnings, embarrassed and humiliated the man, questioned his ethics and tarnished his reputation.

    tim however came off as a class act. he was gracious and humble and forgiving even.

    ellen proclaimed that she will work with tim in the future. really? is that something he’s supposed to be happy about? to work again with the person who screwed him over? it’s clear ellen feels she needs to compensate tim for cheating and humiliating him. i hope tim makes some dough on the deal at least because otherwise i can’t see why he’d ever agree to have anything to do with ellen again.

    tim is talented and earnest. ellen and the design show’s team are incompetent and unscrupulous. blech.

  4. This was a contest. It was furniture, more like ART than like soufflés. The original directives for the contest almost certainly made it clear that the designs were to be original. No art contest would allow the winner to win on a copy of somebody else’s design, and neither should this one. I can totally understand the logic of ending the program as they did, and I do wonder — especially when you consider the quoted conversation between Tim and Chip — if Tim’s sense of panic at not having any ideas early in the challenge led him to consider duplicating an idea he saw elsewhere. (They were almost EXACTLY alike.) (Filming the Ellen show far after the EDC program gave both of them time to work out a diplomatic discussion of the situation.) I liked Tim, and of all the designers, I’d be more likely to buy his work than anybody else’s, including Katie’s. But this is a very sketchy situation. And in any juried art contest, it’s just the opinion/s of the judge/s, not the definitive “Best in the World”. Opinions vary, people who enter competitions learn to accept this, and viewers getting bent out of shape because they disagree are just childish.

    • Thank You! Finally some sanity here. I could have written this myself. Bottom line..he copied it and his comment in the limo was obvious. Why even bring up the topic of a possible replica at all? Why say it can’t look like someone else”s?
      They handled the finale just fine. I like Tim a lot and I like his designs a lot he just really used poor judgment perhaps in his fear of a mental block. And I’m tired of the whining about Ellen, Oh..and it is clear Tim is going to win big in all of this anyway as Ellen said on national TV she was going to do something with him. I thought the show was great fun and I do hope they continue it!

  5. The cow table has been done, too. Look it up

  6. I can’t believe you people saying he obviously copied it. No, he didn’t. The other one didn’t have beams of wood, just similar hidden compartments, like that is somehow a shocker.

    Also, the comment in the car just referred to wanting to make sure it was still his personality, his style of furniture. Nothing nefarious at all.

    Katie’s stuff just was flat ugly….just HIDEOUS. I will never consider her the valid winner. She could not design a piece of dog turd.

  7. I watched the whole first and last episode. For the others, I taped them and then fast forwarded through much of the middle segments as I found them repetitive and not enlightening from a design point of view. I found several of the contestants to be delightful people but now I feel manipulated by the whole series and question whether any of it was genuine or all just scripted. It is certainly ethically flawed. Tim, Katie and the audience were all cheated!

    If the show comes back, please get judges who are designers and can explain design rather than flashy people comfortable with being on TV.

  8. This basis of this show was great and I was excited to view it. Its follow-through and judging were not great and frankly very disappointing . Tim was clearly the most talented contestant, his work was constantly considered superior and sophisticated. Though deemed “too masculine” and not as marketable his co-contestant, Katie’s projects were not labeled “feminine” which they were, probably because the two main judges were female. I am a female and feel that all contestants be judged on project not the judges personal tastes. Katie’s cow table design has been around for years and was truly hideous. I find it interesting that she was not disqualified for copying another’s design.

    I was ready to be a regular viewer of this show, however don’t think it will be one of the HGTV shows I watch on a regular basis. Too bad

  9. I think it was implied that the work made on the show would be original since it was celebrating and promoting individual designers. Tim was a wonderful craftsman but much of his work seemed more than derivative. His final design was far too close to the other to be simply derivative. You can still like it but it’s NOT original and would be unfair to the original designer’s conception (and perhaps illegal). Early on in the show when he made the general’s field desk I remember thinking ‘hmmmm…I just saw something on ebay and other places that was very similar’. That said, if I were the show’s producer I think it would be very difficult to check for plagerism so it might be best to remove that criteria or thoroughly check out the designer’s work for originality prior to inviting them on the show..
    I love Ellen, but I agree that changing the rules in a ‘competition’ (as was done midway with Katiie being saved) was overriding her own judges to suit her own tastes and desires which undermines the whole concept of a ‘competition’. Why not just have a show featuring designers and their methods, inspirations, etc. and skip the whole competition aspect…OR let the ‘challenge’ be related to them fulfilling some task with their designs….be it designing for a particular space, to solve some problem, etc. And then let the season finale be about the audience vote for their favorites based on how well their design fulfilled the challenge. At any rate, it does feel like the show’s concept was not fully flushed out prior to jumping in. I do hope they work out the kinks in this program because I, like Ellen, LOVE LOVE LOVE design and it’s fascinating to see the whole process from concept to finished piece.

  10. I am still quite disappointed and annoyed with the abysmal ending of the finale. I have no issues with the producers deciding Tim should be disqualified based on the rules of the show. My issue is with the way the producers decided to present this to the viewers. Or not present the facts actually. It appeared the intent was to create “drama”. What was actually created was confusion. I was left with a negative impression. It felt as though the producers were attempting to conceal the facts. Especially given there was no official statement from HGTV or Ellen after the finale to provide clarification. Except for a brief response from the President of the Scripts Network Interactive Home Category, Kathleen Finch, “Ellen Degeneres controversy good for ratings”.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2015-03-06/hgtv-exec-ellen-degeneres-controversy-good-for-ratings

    The finale episode tarnished my image of Ellen a bit. And it tarnished my image of HGTV a lot. Tim and Katie are both losers in a sense because they have both been thrown into a negative situation.

    I definitely would not watch this series again. And for the time being, I will not be watching any HGTV programming.

  11. The ending tarnished the entire series.
    It was refreshing to watch this type of program without the usual bitching prevalent in these shows so the ending really soured it for me.
    Not only has the cow table been done (why?), and Katie’s version was hideous, I’ve also seen pieces very similar to her red armoire.
    My only other criticism was the judges and their concept of masculine furniture – I am female and watched the show with my daughter and we love to have Tim’s pieces in our home especially the shelf unit with the industrial fan and his table was amazing.
    I will watch it again if it returns hoping they address some of the viewer’s issues.

  12. I watched the whole show and every week they went on about how “masculine” Tim’s work was while never saying how “feminine” the women’s pieces were–Katie won one episode with a bright pink armoire that was shaped EXACTLY like the dancing armoire in Beauty and the Beast! That’s not feminine? They obviously wanted a woman to win and Tim had to go.

  13. I am perplexed and disappointed in how Ellen DeGeneres and her team handled this whole issue. Tim was clearly the most talented of the group and proved it each week with his outstanding designs. I’ve heard Ellen and many other performers tells jokes that came from years ago and other artists. I’ve heard music that sounded similar to other songs. Specifically to this show, I have seen the same “cow table” years ago and the quasi-winner’s final piece could be found at IKEA today. If the goal of this show was to bring attention to and reward the most talented designer, then the show failed. Tim was clearly the best designer there and to award, instead, a designer who clearly copied other people’s work, makes the show a farce. How disappointing that someone of Ellen DeGeneres’ caliber would allow this ending to have happened. Tim was gracious and a gentleman to the end. And I predict that far more people, worldwide, will be buying his fabulous reclaimed wood designs long after the “winner” and acrylic queen is out of business and working at the local IKEA.

  14. I was so excited when this show was first advertised. I enjoyed watching it until the last episode. Tim’s furniture was way beyond the others in quality and style. Katie’s furniture was awful to say the least. That cow table looked like it was done by a bunch of 5 year olds and play dough. I do not believe Tim deserved to be disqualified and this has ruined the whole show for me. I won’t ever watch it again.

  15. Tim was by and far the better and more creative furniture maker. Did he copy his final design? I don’t know. It was similar, but then again every piece done by all of them looked similar to another piece somewhere. There’s only so different one couch can look from another one. Katie’s final piece looked like Ikea. And really – PVC and laminate stick on paper when you have the run of any material? That showed lack of creativity and confidence.

    My big complaint was how the judges kept referring to a piece as masculine or feminine. Tim’s piece were more country and rustic, Katie’s were more big city. That doesn’t make them feminine or masculine, it’s just what they were. For the judges to describe pieces this way was insulting to the viewer as it tried to simplify things to be category, rather than explaining each piece critically.

    Bottom line was I liked this show up to the last five minutes. Never again will I be suckered in to watching Ellen or any possible season 2. Poor judging and poor handling left a bitter taste in my mouth.

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