Makeovers Losing Luster

Sep 6, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Even the Fab Five would have a tough time making this ratings trend look pretty.

From Bravo to TLC, from ABC to Discovery, makeover shows are struggling to maintain their luster in the face of sagging viewership, even as networks continue to launch new makeover concepts. Though the sudden 39 percent ratings decline of TLC’s “Trading Spaces” has been widely reported, the most recent season averages for TLC’s other makeover mainstays “While You Were Out” and “What Not to Wear” also have suffered drop-offs from their previous seasons (down 14 percent and 42 percent, respectively). What’s more, Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” is down 29 percent from its previous season, Discovery’s daytime show “Surprise by Design” is down 40 percent season-to-date and ABC’s “Extreme Makeover” is down 27 percent from its first season.

“We are in the era wherein the main reality shows are short-term novelty viewing as opposed to long-term-they have big bursts and they fade,” said Tim Brooks, executive VP of research for Lifetime and co-author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.” “These shows are based on rituals-like the `big reveal’-and once you get used to the ritual, you feel like you’ve seen it before.”

That hasn’t slowed a flood of new makeover programming. Bravo has “Queer Eye for the Straight Girl” planned for early next year. Twentieth Television’s “Ambush Makeover” is expanding to national syndication on Sept. 13 and its “Design Invasion” will get a limited run on select stations. NBC Universal is set to debut syndicated life-makeover show “Home Delivery,” also Sept. 13. Fox is readying a second season of “The Swan” and last week premiered “Renovate My Family.”

Fox reality maven Mike Darnell, senior VP of specials and alternative programming, noted his makeover shows may be helping to expedite the exhaustion of the genre in a way that years of play on basic cable has not.

“There’s something to the philosophy that once something hits network, the cable version becomes less popular,” he said, “because you’re getting your fill of [the genre] in a bigger, more expensive and broader way.”

Mr. Darnell’s “Renovate” represents a sort of greatest hits of the makeover genre, with experts giving a makeover to all aspects of a household. In music, a band typically releases a greatest hits package after its career has peaked, so is doing an all-inclusive makeover show a sign that the genre is near an end?

“I think that’s true; when you’ve already done the house and the car, then it dawns on you to combine them into one space,” Mr. Darnell said. “But we’ve had good success with `The Swan.’ I don’t think we’ve reached the saturation point yet.”

Others aren’t so sure. Roger Marmet, executive VP and general manager of makeover genre pioneer TLC, has seen his shows bear the brunt of the increasingly fractured makeover audience. TLC is now seeking concepts, he said, that are “broader than what we now have on the air.”

“Clearly there’s saturation in the marketplace, with a lot of these shows entering syndication and lots of people doing their own take on the home makeover,” Mr. Marmet said. “Clearly if you count the number of home and personal makeover shows on the air now, it is crowded, and whether we’re developing internally or taking pitches, we’re looking [for material that] surprises people.”

To that end, this fall TLC will debut a couple of makeover shows with new twists. “Feng Shui Ole” is an Eastern-influenced home design show, and “Town Haul” supersizes “Trading Spaces” by restoring an entire town. “`Town Haul’ is bigger than a makeover. It’s a modern-day barn-raising,” Mr. Marmet said.

Finding new concepts for TLC may have received an added jolt of urgency last week as the BBC, which has likewise been a pioneer of lifestyle reality, canceled the groundbreaking “Changing Rooms” after eight seasons. “Changing Rooms” is the inspiration for “Trading Spaces,” which in turn is the inspiration for nearly every design-makeover show on the air. The BBC released a statement noting that the channel will now develop lifestyle reality shows based on “family relationships and money.”

“It had an incredibly long run for its money,” said Jane Root, who was controller of BBC 2 before joining Discovery Channel as executive VP and general manager. “It’s not about ditching the genre, it’s about finding other places to go.”

Ms. Root said the future of makeover is not looking for new spaces to trade, but new demographics to tap. Traditionally makeover shows have a female audience. A new crop of shows that are arguably in the makeover genre tend to focus on male interests, such as MTV’s “Pimp My Ride” and, though it doesn’t strictly follow the makeover format, Discovery’s “Monster Garage.”

“Discovery’s big twist on this was to do guy shows like `Monster Garage,”‘ she said. “Makeover shows are turning into a bunch of guys standing around a car and talking about it.”

For the production community, there are challenges as well. One reality television packaging agent noted makeover shows are suddenly becoming a hard sell due to “Trading Spaces.”

“The show has to be more than just a makeover now,” said Stephen Schwartz, senior VP of programming for Style network. This fall Style is launching “Hotspot: The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel,” which tracks a single renovation over the course of the season.

Mr. Schwartz predicted that the genre will survive the inevitable bubble bursting. “There have been room and people makeovers on television as long as I’ve been alive,” he said.

In fact, daytime and morning talk shows have been giving viewers on-air makeovers that concluded with a surprise “reveal” since the 1950s. In 1979, the televised makeover became a stand-alone series when “This Old House” debuted on PBS.

On “House,” carpenters Bob Vila and Norm Abrams improved a home over the course of several months. The show, which is still on the air after 25 years, spawned many “hammer and nails” imitators.

In 2000, the format evolved into its present form when Banyan Productions and TLC adapted the United Kingdom hit “Changing Rooms” into “Trading Spaces.” Aside from having self-contained episodes and a lightning-fast pace compared with previous home improvement shows, “Changing Rooms” took the revolutionary step of shifting the narrative focus from tools and techniques to the people who live in the house.

Still, even Banyan-which also produced “Ambush Makeover,” “Design Invasion,” Oxygen’s “Nice Package” and several “Trading Spaces” spinoffs-is now starting to look for that next evolutionary step.

“As far as development, I know never to say never,” said Banyan Productions Chairman and co-founder Susan Cohen-Dickler. “But we’re trying not to be as much in the design genre. We’re now concentrating on other aspects.”