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Production Diaries: At home in the weird and wacky

Project: World's Most Extreme Homes
October 1, 2005

Project: World’s Most Extreme Homes
Description: A 26 x 30-minute HD series that showcases out-of-the-ordinary dwellings around the world. Think windmill-turned-home in Holland, and whale-shaped house in Mexico. Presenter Ruth England takes viewers through unique settings and interacts with homeowners to get details on their living space.
Exec producer: Stephen Marsh, Pioneer Productions (U.K.) Series producer: Andrea Florence, Pioneer Productions
Production partners: Pioneer Productions, HGTV (U.S.)
Distributor: HGTV
Budget: £62,000 (US$110,000) per half hour HD episode

A house shaped like a flying saucer is strange enough, but one that also rotates 360 degrees – that’s extreme. Yet this exactly describes the home of one eccentric character in France, who also has ladders installed up his walls and across his curved ceilings so that he can climb upside down instead of just walking from room to room. As for the trapezes that hang from the living room ceiling, we’ll leave that for another story.

Bizarre residences like this are the norm in the 26 x 30-minute HGTV series World’s Most Extreme Homes. The project was commissioned from London’s Pioneer Productions, which HGTV VP of program development Mary Ellen Iwata had approached while scouting for new format ideas that would broaden the definition of home in the channel’s sked and up its entertainment value. Having watched the market for lifestyle programming become increasingly competitive during her 13-year tenure at Discovery/TLC, Iwata was looking for ideas that felt fresh. What could be more outside the box than the world’s most unusual homes? But to get to air, the concept first had to survive focus groups, scheming real estate agents, and an intense research and shooting process.

June 2003: Iwata starts at HGTV, which is working with a small group of prodcos. ‘I was hired to bring in more, and also to help expand the brand without losing core viewers,’ she explains. Eager to learn what has worked for the channel previously, Iwata brainstorms with senior VP of programming Michael Dingley, who cites a show about extreme homes in the States. ‘That’s when it clicked in my mind that we don’t have to shoot a show like that just in the U.S.,’ says Iwata. She tucks Dingley’s home show reference in the back of her mind.

October 2003: At her first MIP with HGTV, Iwata is keen to spread the message that she’s looking to work with U.K. prodcos, which have been creating innovative lifestyle programming longer than prodcos in the U.S. She meets with British producers she knows from her days at Discovery/TLC to educate them about HGTV’s style, and to find out if they have any suitable ideas. During her meeting with Stuart Carter, managing director of London-based prodco Pioneer Productions, Iwata remembers a series called Extreme Machines that Pioneer did for TLC, and connects it with the extreme homes theme she had previously discussed with Dingley. Knowing Carter wants to tap into the lifestyle genre to diversify his existing catalog, she asks him to do some research on homes in Europe that are unusual or unique.

Early 2004: Carter sends Iwata about 20 pictures of architecturally avant garde homes, and the two start to seriously discuss producing a project on the subject. One of the pictures Carter sends is of a castle – a common site for the British. ‘But in the U.S., we don’t have castles,’ says Iwata. ‘So it’s a big deal to us.’

In February, she commissions a one-hour special entitled Extreme Homes of Europe that’s budgeted for about £130,000 (US$230,000). It’s HGTV’s first show to be produced by a British prodco, and the first it accepts in HD. (Over 50% of the channel’s programming is now being delivered in high def – a number that’s constantly rising since hgtv will go fully HD in Q1 2006.)

HGTV also decides that product placement will not be used in the special. Says Iwata, ‘We have so many makeover, design, decorating and real estate shows, and if people in them started opening the door to Home Depot our viewers would stop trusting us. We don’t want to become one big infomercial.’

June 2004: A researcher tracks places to profile in Extreme Homes, which will feature seven dwellings. In addition to finding suitable houses, Stephen Marsh, ep on the special and subsequent series, says researchers have to be personable enough to convince homeowners to allow a team to film inside their home. ‘About 90% of it is trust,’ furthers Marsh. ‘If homeowners trust the researcher, they’ll let you in. But if they think you’re going to mess them about, then you don’t have a chance.’ For about a month, the team scours architecture and style magazines, newspapers, books, and the Internet to find funky homes, but also uses word of mouth and the occasional tourist board.

As expected, not all of the leads pay off. Some homeowners flatly refuse to take part, while others aren’t confident enough about their décor to have it showcased. A few sneaky real estate agents also try to get free air time, but homes with no current owner are ineligible.

July 2004: A colleague of Carter’s recommends Ruth England, a young, personable presenter to lead viewers through the unique homes. Marsh is glad to have an effusive host, ‘one that’s not afraid to ask someone who lives in a glass house, ‘Are you a bit of an exhibitionist?” And, he adds, ‘She doesn’t mind looking slightly stupid as she’s trying to get in and out of a hammock.’ As is standard in presenter contracts, Pioneer stipulates that England must be available for shoot days, travel days and voice-over sessions, with schedules made according to her availability as well as that of the contributors.

Extreme Homes shoots. Marsh encounters no major problems shooting in hd except that the format shows every detail. If it’s a dirty house or if the presenter has an insect bite, it shows on screen. ‘The crew had to be very aware and clean marks on the walls,’ he says.

September 2004: The special is delivered, and Carter mentions to Iwata that he’s confident Pioneer would be able to cover houses all over the world. ‘It was a no-brainer for us at HGTV to consider doing a series,’ Iwata expands. ‘The minute the special came through the door, it blew everyone away because it looked so beautiful. It’s a perfect fit for HGTV.’ While she has some trepidation about U.S. audiences accepting a British host, and having enough material for a full series, Iwata is still interested.

October 5, 2004: Iwata meets with Carter and Pioneer head of development Jeremy Dear at MIPCOM and asks them to develop World’s Most Extreme Homes as a 26 x 30-minute hd series. She also requests they send her a proposal with suggested homes and a budget. Having expected to pitch other ideas, Carter is pleasantly surprised by Iwata’s request.

Mid-October 2004: Pioneer begins initial research by separating the world into regions, first by language, as Marsh is primarily looking for English-speaking homeowners. ‘We were concerned that viewers would lose the immediacy and sense of being a house guest if we had to use an interpreter,’ he explains. Another major consideration is climate. ‘You don’t want to be schlepping huge lights around the world or filming in bad weather,’ says Marsh. Budget is also key in selecting locales. ‘The best house in the world is not going to help you if it takes two days to get there, a day to film, and two days to get back – we couldn’t afford that. It’s important to get clusters of houses.’ Pioneer also looks for a mix of modern and older homes.

October 27, 2004: Pioneer sends the full line item budget and descriptions of proposed homes to HGTV. Iwata sends the budget through to HGTV’s business affairs department and it is approved about a month later. ‘It’s not always that fast, but we had worked with Pioneer on the special already,’ says Iwata, who adds that getting budgets from some prodcos can be tiresome. ‘Inevitably, they’ll say, ‘What do you want the budget to be?’ And I always say, ‘I want it to be what it costs to make this show.’ It’s the same conversation I’ve been having for 15 years. It’s a little game we play.’ The budget ends up at roughly £62,000 (US$110,000) per half-hour episode.

November 2004: Confident that there are enough homes to cover an entire series, HGTV steps back from the production process. ‘At that point, the important thing was to lock into a schedule and keep to the budget,’ says Iwata.

Late December 2004: After hiring researchers they know from previous projects, Pioneer starts full-blown research for World’s Most. At the busiest point of this phase, there is a research team of four.

January 2005: The one-hour Extreme Homes special premieres. HGTV sends the deal memo to Pioneer for the resulting series. ‘We own all the rights to the series throughout the world, in perpetuity,’ says Iwata, adding that over 90% of HGTV’s programming is fully commissioned projects for which it owns all rights.

January/February 2005: Marsh heads to the U.S. to discuss World’s Most. He pitches 20 homes for approval since the first shoots (one of which is in New Zealand and Australia) are approaching. The hgtv team makes judgment calls based on a short description of the homes and photos. ‘Working with HGTV is a very collaborative process,’ says Marsh. ‘There’s no ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘master’ and ‘servant.” The only glitch in the meeting occurs when it’s discovered that another hgtv series on Australian homes has already captured a couple of the houses that Marsh researched, and a few of the modern homes lack enough character to make the cut. ‘It was kind of frustrating,’ says Marsh, ‘but that’s the name of the game.’

March 2005: HGTV conducts focus groups for the Extreme Homes special in Atlanta and L.A. to determine what improvements need to be made for the World’s Most series. ‘We gave questions like, ‘How do you feel about the host?” says Iwata. Feedback is mainly positive, although some participants say certain moments lack detail. To correct the problem, World’s Most will only chronicle three homes per episode, as opposed to HGTV’s typical four.

Two separate teams start shooting in New Zealand and South America to capitalize on the weather. In order to shoot a target of 10 houses in each of the regions, four- and five-person teams have one day to film each house. As the New Zealand team heads to Australia, the director’s father falls ill and she is flown home. A replacement director – a recommendation from the host – flies in within 36 hours and fills in for about a week.

During the same New Zealand shoot, Marsh receives an urgent phone call while on vacation in France. The photo the researchers had received of a castle there was, as Marsh says, ‘flattering,’ and the home isn’t a castle after all. ‘And the owners said they had a ghost. Instead, it was a child’s toy hanging from the ceiling.’ Such incidents are the downside of not having the budget to assess potential homes in person beforehand. ‘I told the team, ‘Go have breakfast and go to the next location. Just thank them and tell them you wish they had been more honest – in a nice way.’ You do lose those days, and that’s money you’ll never recoup, but that doesn’t happen too often.’

April 2005: Both teams return to the U.K., and the South American team heads to South Africa. Although he knows that HGTV tries to appeal to both sexes, Marsh doesn’t think too much about audience demos while shooting in order to avoid making what he calls ‘ticking box TV.’ ‘When you think, ‘I’ve got to have a bit of this for them, and a bit of that for them,’ you lose the natural storytelling,’ he says. It’s in the editing that Marsh covers his bases ‘so it’s not too girly, not too blokey.’ As an example, for a home in South Africa, he includes a part about décor, a part about wildlife, and has host England ride a giraffe. ‘Balance makes good programming,’ he says.

Marsh is confident that old and young viewers alike will be intrigued by the homes. ‘People will be fascinated by a house in Chile that’s made out of plywood and has no furniture. My mom, who’s in her 70s, will say, ‘I can’t believe they don’t have any furniture.’ And my 14-year-old son will say, ‘How cool is that? They sit on the roof – that’s their seats.”

As Marsh writes the script, he keeps Americanisms in mind: elevator rather than lift, suitcase rather than trunk. ‘Also, the writing for American shows tends to be more active, more up, more happy, whereas British writing tends to be more reflective. We reveal the punch line at the end, whereas Americans tell you what’s going on earlier. As George Bernard Shaw said: they are ‘two nations divided by a common language.’

Mid-May 2005: Filming starts in Europe and lasts through to the beginning of September.

October 2005: At least six episodes of World’s Most are delivered in time for MIPCOM.

Q1 2006: Homes will premiere in primetime on HGTV.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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