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Image: "Trading Spaces"
If "Trading Spaces" designer Frank Bielec is on the case, homeowners (shown: Jodi Olson) know that faux finishes, country and cute are the words of the day.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 10/20/2003 12:48:07 PM ET 2003-10-20T16:48:07

No TV show was hotter in 2002 than “Trading Spaces.” All viewers could talk about was, “Did you see that lady crying when Doug covered up her fireplace? What a loon!” or “Can you believe that Hildi actually glued hay to the walls? What a loon!” But in 2003, no one really talks about TLC’s preeminent home-design show anymore. What went wrong?

“Trading spaces,” which debuted quietly in 2000, has a simple premise. Two sets of homeowners swap houses and then work with a designer to make over one room in the other couple’s home. The room must be redecorated in two days, with the designer spending no more than $1000.

During the show’s second season, “Trading Spaces” really took off, largely due to the attention generated by over-the-top room designs by designers Doug Wilson and Hildi Santo-Tomas.

But then “Trading Spaces” began to suffer from the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” effect. The game show was once topping the ratings and capturing the attention of millions.

Then ABC pushed too far, showing “Millionaire” nearly every night. Viewers got sick of it, and the primetime version was canceled, leaving only a toothless daytime show.

Most television shows produce 22 new episodes each season. In its second season, Trading Spaces produced 44 new shows, and in its third season, 60 episodes. To make room for all of these new episodes, TLC showed “Trading Spaces” once or twice every Saturday night, in addition, to rerunning older episodes every weekday afternoon.

The success of “Trading Spaces” begat a whole slew of copycat shows with slight variations on the original. Instead of two days, they only take one! Instead of $1000, they only spend $500!

Even “Trading Spaces” itself has spun off two variations: “Trading Spaces Family” which lets the whole brood get involved in the madness, and “Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls,” a Saturday morning show for kids.

You can only watch a homeowner complain about the paint color so many times before it gets old. Familiarity breeds contempt, and viewers were turned off.

Same old same old
But saturation isn’t the only thing causing the lack of buzz. The designers have largely devolved into stereotypes. Vern Yip always does a contemporary room with geometric shapes. Laurie Hickson-Smith paints walls yellow and removes ceiling fans. Frank Bielec will do a faux finish. Doug Wilson will gleefully do whatever the homeowners least want. Hildi Santo-Tomas will put her own image into the space somehow. Genevieve Gorder will giggle a lot and talk about things being organic.

It’s not a good sign when viewers can tell from watching the first five minutes what the rooms will look like and what the homeowner reactions will be.

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The producers may have recognized this burnout, as they continue to add new designers. Last season, Edward Walker and Kia Steave-Dickerson joined the rotation. Edward seems nice enough, but his designs are bland. Kia is another homeowner nightmare along the lines of Hildi and Doug, as proven in one of her first episodes when she transformed a bedroom with Astroturf and fake flowers, resulting in something that looked like a cemetery.

In the current season, new designers Christi Proctor and Rick Rifle have joined the team. Thus far, neither of them has done anything outrageous, but that’s part of the problem. What gets people talking, and what builds a buzz, are the room redesigns that are either astoundingly brilliant (a result most often achieved by Vern) or astoundingly horrendous (a result most often achieved by Hildi and Doug). Middle-of-the-road designs, while they might make for happy homeowners, do not generate cocktail party or water cooler chatter.

In addition, the designers themselves seem bored. This season Doug has shown up unshaven and wearing track pants on more than one occasion. Love him or hate him, Doug is the most interesting designer the show has, and he deserves to be challenged, as do the rest of the cast. Carpenter Ty Pennington seems like he might just lose it if he has to build one more entertainment armoire. And while that might be entertaining to see for one episode, it doesn’t bode well for the show’s long-term success.

Things have changed with the homeowners as well. In the first few seasons, people presumably applied to be on the show because they wanted the chance to have an actual designer redecorate their homes at no cost except for their own sweat. What reasonable person wouldn’t want that? Only a reasonable person who hadn’t seen the show, since viewers knew that sometimes the designers produce something exactly opposite what homeowners desire.

Once the show became popular, people started applying just to get on the show, meet the designers and carpenters, and have a good time. The reactions of the homeowners are surprisingly muted these days, and a follow-up interview in a local newspaper revealed that on at least one occasion, the homeowners had a signal worked out to express displeasure without the cameras noticing.

The reason for such subterfuge is obvious: the show’s buzz hangs on mocking the homeowners who cried and ranted and raved. Who would want to join their ranks? Homeowners learned that any negative feelings or emotions should be contained until the production crews and carpentry trucks have packed up and left town.

First aid for 'Spaces'
So if the show has been overplayed, the copycat shows are legion, the designers are predictable, and the homeowners are hiding their true feelings, what can the producers can do to regain the buzz?

First, TLC should cut the number of new episodes per year from 60 to about 40. That’s still twice as many as most television shows, but it means that each designer will do fewer episodes per season. This frees them up to spend more time planning each room and letting their creativity run free, making it less likely that they will fall into ruts. In addition, fans will have to watch every week, hoping for an appearance by their favorite (or least favorite) designer, and won’t be burned out and sigh, “Another Frank episode!”

From now on, the producers should search for designers with stronger personalities than the recent additions. It’s a hit show. There must be plenty of people hoping to show off their abilities and make a name for themselves by designing a room or two each season. Get rid of the duds (like Kia) and bring in more genuinely funny people who also have a flair for design. Or at least a strong opinion.

And the producers should take a cue from other reality shows and expand their search for potential homeowners through active recruiting. The homeowners who are applying now are fans of the show, and they know all of the tricks. In order to get honest, genuine, and interesting reactions, the homeowners need to be surprised. No fan of the show is surprised when Vern decorates a room and it looks great. But someone who was not familiar with Vern’s work would be. The show is popular, but it’s still on basic cable. There have to be people out there who would be willing to participate without having seen the show before.

The show will probably never regain the buzz it once had, but it can be saved from becoming another temporary success with a few changes.

How about confining the designers to one color, or giving the homeowners complete veto power over one (and only one) design decision?

Some of the best remembered episodes of the third season were those involving celebrities such as Natalie Maines and Andy Dick. While more celebrity installments could get tiring, the episode that will air on Oct. 5 ups the ante by giving designers Doug and Laurie $50,000 each instead of the usual $1000. Now that’s intriguing.

The “Trading Spaces” producers need to shake up the formula in the same way their designers shake up the rooms they decorate. No one talks about the show anymore because there is nothing to say.


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