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A woodworking plagiarism scandal on ‘Ellen’s Design Challenge’? HGTV handling of finale sparks controversy.

UPDATE Wednesday afternoon: European desk designer speaks out

There’s no doubt that the first season finale of Ellen DeGeneres’s reality competition show was bizarre. But the questions it raises are even stranger, along with the weird and frustrating way the network chose to handle a controversial situation.

At first, things were going merrily along on “Ellen’s Design Challenge” finale Monday night, a six-week series that featured furniture designers competing for $100,000 and a spread in HGTV Magazine. Finalists Katie Stout (a 26-year-old from Brooklyn) and Tim McClellan (a 44-year-old from Colorado) presented their respective final table designs to the judges, who were impressed by Stout’s execution and McClellan’s technical skill.

After some debate, they declared McClellan the winner. Hugs everywhere as confetti rained down. “My life just changed even beyond what I can imagine,” said McClellan, sounding emotional.

Then, the screen went dark with the message “ONE WEEK LATER.” A voiceover narrator jumped into explain.

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

The show helpfully showed the designs side by side so viewers could judge:

The narrator continued, a bit mischievously: “Unfortunate for Tim, but good news for someone else!”

Cut to Stout, on set of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” She thought she was there to do an interview with a journalist about the show, but then DeGeneres appeared. And she had some good news! McClellan was disqualified, and she was a winner! After making sure this wasn’t a prank, Stout was thrilled. Her brother and boyfriend appeared from backstage, and more hugs. More confetti rained down. End of show.

Allow us to echo the thoughts of all the viewers watching the show: Um, what just happened?

Let’s lay out the issues here. First, that’s an awfully cavalier way of accusing McClellan of woodworking plagiarism, given that he owns a furniture store and his career and reputation are on the line. And the bait-and-switch ending is a disservice to viewers who invested time in the show. Really? No follow-up to what happened after such a nasty accusation? No other explanation about how or when they found out about the other table? No reaction from McClellan on camera?

[‘Ellen’s Design Challenge’ scandal update: European desk designer speaks out]

We reached out to HGTV for comment. A network spokeswoman would only give us the same statement that the narrator read above.

On Twitter, McClellan took the high road. He also updated his Facebook status with “Oh well, there’s always next year.”

Predictably, the HGTV Facebook page is filled with hundreds of negative comments — many defending McClellan, upset by the network’s treatment of the situation, and accusing the show of being rigged.

“I think it was completely unnecessary to disqualify Tim in the way that they did,” a viewer wrote. “While it’s true that we don’t know everything that went on behind the scenes to vet these pieces (which, incidentally, should have been done BEFORE selecting the winner), I think it was pretty unprofessional to publically [sic] shame him in this way.”

“What a sour taste in my mouth to disqualify Tim like that!!! Terrible ending. Ellen, that was not right,” one said.

“Tim was the better designer by far. People can coincidentally have similar ideas & he didn’t get to defend himself,” another tweeted.

Chip Wade, the carpenter who worked with McClellan on the show, took to Twitter to praise McClellan’s “original” designs. “Amen to that!” Christiane Lemieux, one of the show’s judges, tweeted in response.

That can’t be fun for Stout, the runner-up turned winner who’s receiving some of the backlash. And it’s not like producers were shocked by this ending — this wasn’t a live broadcast, obviously. They also appeared unembarrassed by the controversial switch, so much so that they hyped a “shocking twist” in the episode description.

When we called McClellan’s furniture store in Arizona on Tuesday, the person who answered the phone said McClellan was flying to Los Angeles to film an appearance on DeGeneres’s talk show, so he wouldn’t be available to speak until later. On Tuesday night, DeGeneres tweeted that McClellan’s segment will air Thursday.

“It’s the most talked about moment in furniture design show history. Tim was disqualified after winning my show.Thursday he tells me his side,” she wrote.

So what was this? Was this just some cruel publicity stunt to reel in viewers and generate buzz? That’s happened for sure, just not in a good way — and certainly no way to lure viewers back to the show.

(This post has been updated.)