The truth behind reality television makeover shows

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Now that I’ve published my novel Design My Life–based on my career in lifestyle television production, people often ask me “How much of your book is true?” Well, it’s a novel, so by definition it’s fiction; it’s made up; it’s not true. But the more correct and honest answer is: It’s all true, but none of it is real. Just like reality television.

Many of the stories you’ll read in the novel are true. They actually happened, on productions I worked on, to me or to people I know. Other stories happened, on other sets, though perhaps not to me or to my friends. Some I heard about, through the industry grapevine. And some are legendary–but that doesn’t make them untrue. Still others occurred, though in a much worse way than you would possibly believe, so I had to falsify them to make them credible. And I’m not going to tell which is which, so don’t ask.

I worked for more than a decade in lifestyle television production–helping create some of the never-ending stream of cable series about home and garden design and house renovations. I’ve worked for many different series, and for several different hosts and production companies–on shows that you very likely have seen or at least have heard of.

I’ve done casting, research, script writing, segment production, post-production, publicity and random office administration stuff on renovation rescues, garden series and interior design shows.

Over the years I’ve found that when people find out what I did for a living they invariably ask these two questions:

  1. Is the show (insert title here) “true”? That’s often from people who just can’t believe the number of disasters they see TV designers uncover when they are renovating a house.
  1. What’s the Star (insert name here) “really like”? That’s usually from people who already hate the star and want me to give them a reason.

They want the facts, the truth behind makeover television. Because we all know television is not reality, right? Especially reality television.

So here are some facts: The goal of a television production is to make money. A TV series is a product, like a pair of shoes or a frying pan. That money is made primarily through selling advertising on the broadcast network. In order to make money, you need to get lots of people watching your television show, and the way to do that is to make it entertaining.

There are lots of ways networks and lifestyle producers try to make their programs entertaining: great hosts, excellent guests, take-away information, aspirational and inspirational projects, competitions, prizes, emotional manipulation and contrived stunts, to name a few.

Whether the show is ‘real’ or ‘true’ isn’t relevant. It’s a show! You wouldn’t object to writers and producers/directors ‘making up’ the storyline in a popular drama. Nobody expects The Good Witch to be accurate.

So, as for ‘faking’ disasters or exaggerating the seriousness of some discovery the designers and contractors find behind the walls, well that’s just drama. It may be true in spirit, or it could be true in some parallel universe–just not necessarily in the actual renovation you are watching on television. If the producers have to make stuff up to make the show more entertaining, then it’s all in a good cause, right?

As to the question of what the various stars and hosts are “really like”, the truth is that they aren’t “real” either. They are real people of course, but they are people playing a part on a television series–they adopt a persona in order to do their job. And, like the rest of humanity, some of them are perfectly fine human beings and others are complete assholes. And, I’m not going to tell you that either, so don’t ask.

There have been many lifestyle stars since the genre was invented, from handymen to crafters, from decorators and painters, to designers and contractors. Most are forgotten. Very few have been lucky enough to have second seasons ordered or new series developed, let alone to become household names or have their own lines of furniture or paint. Like most television products, they are replaceable.drill-race handyman-set-2

Many of the characters in Design My Life are based on real lifestyle television hosts I’ve worked with, and on those I’ve heard about–through that same industry grapevine I mentioned earlier. Others are pure fiction, springing from my imagination, inspired by characteristics and personality traits I’ve observed in reality. You are welcome to speculate about who might be who when you read Design My Life. It’ll be fun.