Friday, April 08, 2005

This Old Show

I think I've mentioned that I like home renovation shows. The grand-daddy of all home renovation shows in North America is This Old House. Through twenty five years and three very different hosts, the show has been a standard on most PBS stations with some, such as WTVS Detroit (which serves eastern and central Canada including Saskatoon) airing the show in prime time, along with its much newer companion show Ask This Old House.

I haven't seen every episode of This Old House. I pretty much missed the fifth or sixth season when the nature of the show changed radically from what it had been and would be later. Until that time the show would buy a property, renovate it and put it on the market. One season they actually built, from the ground up, an energy efficient house that had all of the bells and whistles that, at the time, were expected from an energy efficient property - solar heating, partially buried structure, heavy insulation, and solar cells for power generation. It was a nice house but I gather they had trouble selling it because the next season was spent doing "small" one or two episode projects in and around the Boston area in a style much like the current Ask This Old House. Subsequent jobs have primarily been "sweat equity" projects where home owners have been required to provide some of the labour and more importantly, most of the money.

Over the past 25 years the show has had three very different hosts. The first host was Bob Villa, a Miami born contractor who hosted the show for the first ten years (1979-89). He was selected as host because of his background in journalism and because his work on restoring an Italianate style house won an award from Better Homes and Gardens Magazine. In the beginning he very much was the show, but over the next couple of years carpenter and (at the time) general contractor Norm Abram effectively became the show's co-host and is the only on-air personality who has been with the show since the beginning. The Villa-Abram relationship was at least in part the genesis for the characters of Tim Taylor and Al Borland in Home Improvement. Villa left the show in 1989, reportedly over a conflict over advertising that Villa had done for Time-Life Books and his relationship with Sears. He was replaced by Steve Thomas. Thomas, who had previously worked in the construction industry in various capacities, but at the time probably best known as a sailor who had written a book and made an episode in the PBS television show Adventure about his experience learning about star path navigation from a master navigator in Micronesia. Thomas was with the show from 1989 to 2003, a period which saw Abram secure his position as co-host as well as a start his own PBS show The New Yankee Workshop. This period also saw the emergence of general contractor Tom Silva, plumbing and heating contractor Rich Trethewy, and landscaper Roger Cook as major figures on the show. In Thomas's last year as host a companion show Ask This Old House was started. This show had the This Old House experts travelling around the country (although the country seemed to consist mostly of the Boston area) helping ordinary people with home renovation questions. One of the people who appeared on that show was a young man named Kevin O'Connor. He became the current host of This Old House and Ask This Old House in 2003.

A lot of factors help make the show work. O'Connor is an ideal host because, while he is articulate he is also an every man. A vice president in Sports Finance with the old Fleet Bank, O'Connor isn't a professional in the building trades. As a result there's a feeling that he's learning something at the same time as the audience. He contrasts nicely with master carpenter Norm Abram. Another factor is that the principal trades people are not only proficient in their areas but are actually doing the jobs,because they are. Indeed Villa has said that while he was hosting the show he was also continuing to work as a contractor - the salary for doing This Old House was never great enough that he could make a living from doing the program. While Rich, Tommy and Roger are polished and capable of explaining what they're doing, you are never permitted to forget that they are in fact amateurs in the TV business, and if it went away tomorrow they'd still make a very good living in their respective trades.

Another factor of This Old House is the projects they undertake. One of the complaints about the show is that the projects are bigger than what the average person would undertake. They aren't renovating a $100,000 bungalow or ranch style house, a lot of the projects have renovation budgets larger than that. However big projects allow them to do two things that the show does very well: show the techniques that are used, and show innovative products. In the episode that aired this Thursday on WTVS, viewers not only saw the manufacturing process for polyurethane moldings but also the installation process for installing a window casing using the product. Even failures can be used to illustrate a point. In the same episode it was revealed that the oak lintel that had been intended as a fireplace mantle wasn't approved by the local building inspector despite what the people involved in installing it regarded as adequate protection. To appeal the decision test results were needed that proved that the installation was safe. The testing techniques were explained as were the standards that had to be met. When the tests were completed it was discovered that the lintel was in fact inadequately protected and because of time constraints on the project it would have to be replaced rather than been brought up to standards. It's true that few of us are going to try to turn a 150 year old barn into a home, but it's also true that the techniques for installing a wood laminate floor don't change much whether you're putting down 1000 square feet or 50.

This Old House is an interesting combination of a instruction and entertainment. Most home owners have renovation projects they need or want to undertake - I know I have - and it is also a fact that most guys who have been through a couple of shop classes think that they're capable of at least trying most jobs. What This Old House does is show the wannabe handyman how to do projects and new ways to do projects. They also make clear that there are some projects that the home owner needs to hire professionals for. And in a rather strange sort of way it's sort of entertaining to watch professionals doing their job and trying to explain it.

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