While filming a 40th-anniversary special for "This Old House" recently, original host Bob Vila stopped to consider why after all these years people still can't seem to get enough of home improvement shows.
"This Old House," which began chronicling home renovations in 1979, was one of the first such shows on national television and arguably helped create the DIY nation we all live in.
"It's like cooking," said Vila, 73, who now spends his time sitting on the boards of various nonprofits, living mostly in Palm Beach, Fla., and occasionally on New York's Upper East Side and Martha's Vineyard.
Say you want to rip out your bathroom linoleum and replace it with ceramic tile. First, maybe you get inspiration from TV; next, you binge-watch a bunch of random YouTube videos or find a how-to video on ThisOldHouse.com or Vila's website, BobVila.com. Armed with your shopping list, you head to the store, get your ingredients, come home and lose a weekend laying a floor.
"At the end of the project, you're a hero," Vila said.
Four decades after Vila and the rest of the original "This Old House" crew introduced viewers to the concept of watching contractors turn tired homes into pretty ones, knocking down walls is big entertainment. "This Old House" is a powerful brand with a magazine, a website and a spinoff, "Ask This Old House."
The show's creator, Russell Morash, whose credits include "The French Chef" with Julia Child and "The Victory Garden," was crowned the "father of how-to television" by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences when it awarded him a lifetime achievement Emmy in 2014. His brand of educational television paved the way for a genre of reality TV centered on what would otherwise be mundane tasks.
Now the competition is stiff. Renovation-hungry viewers can tune in 24 hours a day to HGTV's endless loop of angst-ridden shows, including "Love It or List It" and "Flip or Flop." Other networks, including Bravo, have their own high-drama renovation lineups, with shows like "Buying It Blind" and "Flipping Exes."
Formula still works
"This Old House" didn't originally follow the formula of the anxious homeowner saved by a crew of knowledgeable tradesmen that has come to define the genre. Its first season, which aired on WGBH Boston, a local public television station, had no homeowner at all. Instead, it chronicled the restoration of a vacant and dilapidated Victorian house that the station bought and later sold. PBS picked up the unlikely hit show the following season, and in 1982, producers featured a homeowner restoring a Greek Revival house. After that, the formula took hold.
There have been changes over the years. Scenes are shorter, and features like "sweat equity," where homeowners strap on a tool belt and get to work, add drama.
The houses are different, too. One Rhode Island house featured in 2018 was described as an "idea house," with vacation-focused elements like a plunge pool, barbecue station and outdoor shower.
But despite the competition from flashier cable TV shows, "This Old House" has largely stuck to its formula, with a cast that includes members from 1979 who still work on one house over multiple episodes.
And it's a formula that continues to work. In the first quarter of 2019, "This Old House" reached 2.043 million households, and "Ask This Old House" reached 1.876 million households, making them the two top-rated shows in their category, beating HGTV's entire lineup, according to Nielsen data provided by "This Old House."
"What HGTV is doing is great, but we look at this content in a different manner. We don't redo a house in one episode," said Dan Suratt, chief executive of This Old House Ventures. "People want that level of detail, and that's what's lacking in the other shows."
Vila, who left the show in 1989 over a dispute about his celebrity endorsements, could be credited with creating the handyman-hero aesthetic: the rumpled but somehow polished workman in a flannel shirt, jeans and work boots. That uniform has come to be synonymous with home improvement television, with variations worn by current HGTV stars like Jonathan Scott of "Property Brothers" and Chip Gaines of "Fixer Upper."
"Bob inspired an entire generation of industry professionals — I was one of them," said Gaines, who is starting a new TV network in 2020 to replace Discovery's DIY Network, with his wife, Joanna Gaines. "He single-handedly shifted the narrative of an age-old trade."