It is no surprise that reality television is rarely a representation of reality. How genuinely can anyone act (no pun intended) with a crew of cameras and microphones within arm’s reach? From scripted dialogue to behind-the-scenes staging, reality TV has seeped into nearly every corner of the market, and home remodeling is no exception.
Through the evolution of television, facts and fiction have generally known their respective places and, even if commingled, remained distinct from each other. Historically, there has been a differentiating line between programming intended for entertainment and programming intended for information.
The difficulty is that the television industry has increasingly blurred the line between shows designed for entertainment and shows designed for education. Channels such as TLC (which once stood for “The Learning Channel”), HGTV, and even the Weather Channel and various news syndicates used to be defined by either their informative or educational programs. Now, however, they are more entertainment than information channels: You are more likely to tune in to facts or reality — when it is even presented — encased by opinions, drama, heavy editing or outright inaccurate data.
How we process information changes when that entertainment/education line is blurred — specifically, when programs designed for entertainment start introducing elements of their show as factual (or vice versa). It is a sneaky way to tip the scales: The entire show is easy to register as entertainment. So when little “facts” or context-specific truths work their way in, we have our guard down and accept them, often without even thinking about it. At times, almost insidiously, these programs start to rebalance themselves in our minds as mildly educational. This is the danger zone of misinformation.
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As a design professional, I believe one of my responsibilities is to help educate my clients. Despite living in the information age, we are surrounded by misinformation — and it can be nearly impossible to differentiate between the two without proper guidance. I see the source of this problem regularly when I tune in to shows about remodeling. So how can you tell what is true to the screen and what may be — directly or indirectly — propagating misinformation?
When it comes to home-remodeling reality TV, context is everything.
First consider the context of the home: Where is it located?
In some renovation shows, the city, state or even country (a surprising number that air in the United States are produced in Canada) are omitted. This becomes a honey pot for misinformation when numbers are then, inevitably, discussed.
Pricing for materials, labor and overall project budgets are not consistent across the United States, and any dollar amount needs context to have value. A $50,000 budget will yield wildly different results for a project in the heart of an East Coast city than it will in a Midwestern suburb. Always think to question where a project is located if numbers are discussed on a remodeling show.
It should also be noted that budget and total project costs may be influenced by the channel paying its regular and/or guest cast members each episode. (Do you think the designers, contractors and homeowners are only receiving 15 minutes of fame as compensation?)
Next, consider the episode in the context of its series. Does it follow a formula? Confident designer makes lofty promises on seemingly low budget; problems are discovered during demolition; lofty scope must be dramatically reduced “to resolve discovered problem” or an egregious budget increase is required . . . every time.
To their credit, many of these shows do an excellent job communicating this true reality: Once construction has started, sometimes hidden or unknown existing conditions are revealed that warrant (or require) an unexpected increase in scope — which results in an increase in cost.
For instance, disintegrating pipelines or tangled DIY electrical work behind drywall usually cannot be detected — or accounted for — ahead of time. (As I tell my clients, we are still working on X-ray vision technology.)
However, this does not happen with every single household or project. So if you notice it happening — on a dramatic scale — during every episode of a reality TV show, recognize this consistently injected drama for what it is: a real representation of renovation risks? Perhaps. An excuse to get out of building that third-story addition that was never even close to realistic for the proposed, yet accepted, budget? Definitely.
Third, what is the context of the final results you are seeing? Extravagant scopes on extremely short timelines are simply unrealistic. In theory, you could hire a huge workforce — but have you ever tried to find more than one really good craftsman or contractor to work on your home? How about a hundred? Even with the best of laborers, tight timelines rarely set anyone up for quality success.
In recent years, the grand unveiling of these finished houses have been quietly revealed as — sometimes — just grand shams, showcasing a meticulously composed staging. What you see is a beautiful, furnished, finished space, but just beyond the camera’s precisely calculated pan is an unfinished room and incomplete home.
Not knowing a project’s geographic context can lead to a misperception of budget and costs. Having only the pinhole sightline of a camera’s view can lead to unrealistic timeline expectations — even if just as an indirect, trickle-down effect.
We all know building a custom home from scratch in a week is unrealistic under normal circumstances. But does it not still, despite this acknowledgment, make three weeks for a bathroom remodel seem a little longer than it should be?
Whether or not your project is filmed by a crew and broadcast to the world, all architecture projects are governed by three factors: time, money and quality. If you are lucky, pick any two — speedy schedule, low cost, genuine craftsmanship — at the sacrifice of the third.
Many home-remodeling TV shows seem to deliver all three. These may be excellent sources for entertainment but should be recognized as poor sources of information.
Stephanie Brick is the owner of Stephanie Brick Design in Baltimore.