The Facts of Lifestyle

January 1, 2008

One of the first words broadcasters mention when dissecting what goes into a hit lifestyle show is ‘talent.’ Hosts need charisma, humor and a big on-screen presence to draw viewers, says Anna Gecan, VP of content for HGTV Canada. That’s why the channel brought Scottish design experts Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan and their consistently over-the-top antics to Canuck screens in Colin & Justin’s Home Heist. Sneaking into an unsuspecting (and décor-challenged) person’s home and giving it their own unique stamp, Colin and Justin are full of naughty jokes. In one episode, Justin bursts into a bedroom with a rooster painting above the bed and doesn’t miss a beat: ‘Oh god,’ he exclaims, ‘he’s got a giant cock in the bedroom. Cock-a-doodle-do, any cock’ll do!’

But foul (and fowl) jokes aside, presenters also have to be passionate and credible, says Catherine Catton, channel head of UKTV Style. Take The Clothes Show, a look at the world of fashion co-hosted by Louise Redknapp. She’s glam, used to be in a hit pop band, and is a regular on red carpets and at premieres, says Catton. ‘She has this authenticity where people think, ‘If [she's] going to tell me what designer’s hot right now, I’m going to buy into it because I know [she] lives and breathes it.”

Mary Ellen Iwata, VP of program and talent development at Knoxville-based HGTV, says her channel is extremely talent-driven these days, but largely sticks to hosts who are experts in their field. Take carpenter Carter Oosterhouse, the host of Carter Can, a show in which he helps homeowners with their improvement projects. ‘It’s really important to us that the hosts be extremely credible because they are the face of the network,’ says Iwata. Oosterhouse first gained a following over on TLC’s Trading Spaces, where he was part of the show’s hands-on crew.

Underlining the fact that talent is a viewer-appreciated commodity, one of Spaces‘ former cast members has made a comeback to TLC. Paige Davis was the bubbly front person of Spaces until she was dropped from the show in 2005 when it converted to a host-less format. But now, ‘more than two years after parting ways,’ as a TLC source puts it, Davis is back to host the newest season of Spaces. As Angela Shapiro-Mathes, president and GM of TLC, notes of Davis’ return: ‘Paige is the heart of this series…’

Securing that sort of talent is no easy feat, says W Network director of original programs Vibika Bianchi. ‘Finding the right talent can be more important than the idea of the show because if you get enough brains in a room you can create a great idea, but you can’t make talent,’ she says. ‘Ultimately, we tend to take that talent beyond what they do in the show, so there’s the Web content and extending their exposure in various elements, such as marketing sales opportunities.’

And Web content is not to be underestimated, says Trevor Eastment, head of programming and production at Australia’s The LifeStyle Channel. ‘I am not allowed to do a lifestyle show unless there is significant Web content,’ he says. ‘If it’s a cooking show, I need to have all of the recipes, the restaurant, the chef’s biography and the name of all the places he visited and how to get there.’ This level of detailed Web content allows the affiliated TV programs to share the more anecdotal info – like which colors to paint a house before selling it – that viewers would discuss with their friends at the pub, says Eastment. Viewers know they can go online to find the name of the paint to use, or tick a box to get it emailed to them.

During Maxed Out, a financial makeover show on W Network, viewers are pointed to the channel’s website to access online budgeting tools. This extra online content has made it a consistent top five show site, and the number one show site for the most downloaded templates. ‘Even if you’re watching at 11 o’clock at night, you can go right online and use the tools right away,’ says Bianchi, adding that all of W’s shows have some volume of info online, with about half offering tools and interaction on their pages. ‘Having any opportunity to extend the show’s brand always increases the value of the show,’ she says. ‘At this stage of the game there isn’t really any money being made off that, but promotion is equally important to us.’

‘It’s really barely even new media anymore, it’s just media, it’s all encompassing for us,’ says Brant Pinvidic, SVP of programming at TLC. ‘If viewers are watching something on TV and want more of it, I have to be able to give it to them,’ he says. Take Miss America: Reality Check – a new TLC show produced by Team Tiara, a division of Santa Monica-based PB&J Television – which follows dozens of beauty contestants living under one roof. ‘We also filmed tons of different tags and promotional stuff, behind-the-scenes confessionals – anything you can think of that would add to user content,’ says Pinvidic. ‘We can’t showcase all 52 girls throughout each episode, so if you want to see more about Miss Illinois, we have to have stuff that will help you find her.’

Just as it has with other genres, hybridization has made its way into lifestyle. HGTV Canada recently launched its first fully hybrid format – a docusoap called Marriage Under Construction. ‘We decided to do a kind of Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica for HGTV,’ says Gecan. The show follows a young couple as they buy, renovate, design and live in their first home. ‘It’s a hybrid in the same way The Hills is,’ she furthers. ‘You take real people and you are slightly managing their storylines in order to fit the confines of a 13-episode series.’ (Hopefully any producers who may manage those storylines don’t get as overzealous as The Hills‘ producers allegedly have, however.)

Gecan is on the hunt for more shows of Construction’s ilk, so HGTV Canada has just commissioned Petal Pushers, a series that digs behind the scenes of a florist shop in Toronto. It’s part reality show, part lifestyle and part how-to. Each episode includes the characters planning for an event, plus viewers learn about flowers and arranging, ‘but it’s all wrapped up within this ongoing docusoap,’ says Gecan.

It’s one thing to suck in viewers at the beginning and end of a show for the set-up or reveal, but it’s a whole other challenge to keep them glued to the couch for the duration of the program. Audio cues can help, as an internal report conducted by W Network about how women watch TV shows reveals. If you have frequent indicators to let viewers know to turn their head to the TV – music cues, sound effects, host catchphrases – they’ll be more likely to stick to the screen, says Bianchi.

Another Canadian channel plugging beats throughout its shows is Slice – a nearly year-old rebranding of Alliance Atlantis’ version of the former Life Network that primarily targets women in their 30s. Unlike its more serious health and parenting-heavy predecessor, Slice is for viewers looking for a fix of guilty pleasure programming. Key to providing it, says VP of content Vanessa Case, is moving beyond traditional storytelling in which you start with a problem, introduce a fix and get a resolution at the end of the show. ‘Viewers are pretty educated – they start to figure out those formulas themselves,’ she says. She believes tossing in surprises in the middle of a show can help. Avoiding clichéd wraps serves the show well, she says: ‘That’s an element of good lifestyle TV – keeping people a little surprised at the end of the show.’

On a mission to provide more than just pure entertainment for HGTV viewers, Iwata furthers that payoff is critical for HGTV’s shows. ‘We do like to entertain, but our viewers really expect some payoff at the end of the show,’ she says. And that payoff can take different forms. Take, for instance, HGTV’s highest-rated show, House Hunters, which was watched by more than 45 million viewers last September, and produces an Adults 25-54 rating 30% to 40% higher than the overall primetime average. Hunters features homeowners during the emotional journey of searching for their future abode. Even viewers not in the market for a home enjoy comparing their tastes to the buyers in the show, says Iwata. ‘People love to say ‘I wouldn’t have done that – why didn’t they choose the second house?” The payoff is seeing which house the characters buy.

Then, to satisfy the voyeuristic side of HGTV viewers, there’s What’s With That House? – a peek inside the houses that stick out like sore thumbs in a neighborhood. ‘They’re usually so over the top that it’s ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe people live like that or they have that,” says Iwata. ‘The payoff there is getting inside the kooky houses.’

Forget delivering content in a pedantic fashion, says Gecan. HGTV Canada has moved from standard how-to television – ‘which was really like ‘Take this 2 x 4 and chop it up to build this” – to wrapping info in a plotted-out, story-driven format. That doesn’t have to involve a competition element, says Iwata on behalf of the HGTV south of the border. Competitions may work for other networks, but you won’t see a fake timeline on HGTV. ‘With the exception of Design Star, we’re not going to do competitions – no red team, blue team, pitting people against each other,’ says Iwata.

Over at UKTV Style, Catton avoids ‘mean TV’ and overly critical or voyeuristic shows. With a program like Spa of Embarrassing Illnesses, whose characters were inflicted with everything from psoriasis to Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Catton says ‘what we didn’t do is point and say ‘Ha ha, you sweat loads and isn’t that gross and this is what you could do about it;’ it’s actually doing it in a very emotionally supportive way. We don’t have to pick holes in everybody all the time. Life’s tough enough as it is.’

TLC’s Pinvidic agrees – that’s why he’s not interested in the ideas he’s constantly pitched about downer subjects like foreclosure, debt and divorce. ‘I think producers make the mistake that because certain things are relatable because a lot of people are going through them, that that will automatically make compelling television. There are certain elements in people’s lifestyles that viewers don’t want to be entertained with.’ It’s hard to turn foreclosure, say, into an entertaining, compelling show.

Those adjectives also describe what the other lifestyle-focused broadcasters say it takes to create hit shows, but Gecan goes a step further: ‘I compete with House. It has to be big ticket primetime programming – I’m purposefully commissioning that way.’ Stick with the themes the broadcasters here have hit on, and you’ll be closer to achieving what she’s talking about.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.