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Producer’s Slate Expands as `Redemptive Reality’ Fills Niche

Aug 25, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Susan Cohen-Dickler creates reality television that looks like a reality you might actually want to live in. A reality with attractive color schemes, friendly neighbors and textured couches. Not “The Real World,” perhaps, but a real nice world.
“We call it `redemptive reality,”’ Ms. Dickler said. “We look for a positive experience for the participants, and with as little manipulation as possible.”
The producer of “Trading Spaces,” “A Wedding Story,” “A Makeover Story” and other programs, Ms. Dickler said her love of television began at an early age.
“I watched TV all the time as a kid,” she said. “My parents were worried about what would happen to me. I think they were relieved when I made a living out of it.”
After majoring in television at Oberlin College, Ms. Dickler interned at PBS and worked production jobs, including an executive producer stint at “PM Magazine.” In 1992, she started a production company in her Philadelphia garage with her husband, Jan, and friends Ray Murray and Kelly Ryan.
“I was working with my husband and our best friends. We did everything we weren’t supposed to do,” she said.
But their company, Banyan Productions, grew to become one of the more popular content producers on cable while managing to maintain its independent status and Philadelphia location. This fall, Ms. Dickler will oversee production of 10 original series.

“It never fails to amaze me that we’ve gotten people to come here from Chicago and Los Angeles to work for us,” Ms. Dickler said. “We now have 200 people working here in an office overlooking Independence Hall. We all feel real lucky.”
Much of her success is due, of course, to “Trading Spaces,” which has single-handedly made over The Learning Channel and spawned spinoffs “Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls” and “Trading Spaces: Family.”
“`Trading Spaces’ has obviously been wonderful for us,” she said. “We were lucky we were doing a lot before, though, so we were ready to handle it when it took off.”
Overexposure of the “Trading Spaces” brand is, however, always a concern. “It’s hard not to worry about all your shows,” she said. “So we try to do different things, things you might call stunts, such as doing a live [decorative] reveal. We’re always trying to twist the format.”
Despite a rapidly expanding production slate, Ms. Dickler said she is not interested in producing reality programming that might seem exploitative. She added that she tries to foster a similarly positive environment on her side of the camera.
“She’s very open and very collaborative,” said Terri Johnson, an executive producer at TLC. “Many producers can get defensive and want to own everything, but she’s very collaborative about how she works. ”
Ms. Dickler is now starting production on “Perfect Proposal,” a relationship series to debut on TLC this fall.
She also has high hopes for a national rollout of “Ambush Makeover,” which debuted last month and is syndicated on Fox. On the show, five style specialists make over a person randomly selected on the street. Asked about Bravo’s similarly “redemptive” makeover hit “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Ms. Dickler readily admitted to being a fan.
“I happen to think it’s a riot and very well produced,” she said.
Well, what a nice thing to say.