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September 18, 2014

A history of reality television (part six): Makeovers from body to home

by Richard Keller, posted Jul 9th 2008 6:00PM

tlc spacesThe makeover/lifestyle program has a unique niche in the Reality Revolution. Where other reality programs abide by the phrase "Only the Strong Survive," makeover shows are normally an individual or group effort. It comes from the shows themselves, of course, as they are intent in making life just a little bit better for the participants.

It may be redesigning a room in a neighbor's home, making over one's wardrobe, losing weight, controlling one's family or even turning someone from an ugly duckling into a swan. Granted, the hosts of these shows may show a bit of arrogance toward those trying to make a better life for themselves or others, but that just makes those wanting the makeover or lifestyle change even more interesting to the viewer. Plus, it doesn't hurt the star status of the hosts themselves.

The other interesting thing about this genre of reality program is, save for a handful of shows on the five major networks, the bulk of these programs are broadcast over the cable airwaves. Perhaps that's done to counteract some of the more sleazy reality programming that the cable networks produce. Or, maybe it's the fact that many of the channels that cater to the self-improvement set are on cable themselves. Either way, it is a genre that is quite popular and continues to grow year after year.

Origins of the makeover/lifestyle program can be traced back to our friends across the pond in the United Kingdom. The first to come over was Changing Rooms. Premiering in 1996, a team of two people each were given a set amount of money, a professional designer, a carpenter, and 24 hours to transform a room in each other's living space. When Changing Rooms came over to the US in 2000, it became the show Trading Spaces and started the Do-It-Yourself craze in both television and the country.

Not much was changed between Rooms and Spaces except the length of the show (60 minutes), the amount of money used to redesign the selected rooms ($1000) and the talent. The first season of the show, hosted by Alex McLeod, was not the ratings topper for TLC, the cable network where the show aired. It wasn't until Paige Davis came on to host in 2001 that the show became a phenomenon and a launchpad for other DIY shows. It also made overnight stars of people like host Davis, carpenter Ty Pennington and many more who appeared on the show, giving them the ability to expand their domains by working on other programs.

Like many shows, Spaces became a victim of its own success. As similar shows began to gain in popularity, many of them on TLC itself, Spaces lost its way with format changes, more money for rooms and, eventually, the lost of Davis as host in 2005. The show seemed to lose its way as host-less couples worked to transform homes with newer designers and carpenters, many of them not recognizable by the fans of the show. It was realized a short time later that Davis was the glue that held Trading Spaces together. So, she was brought back in 2008 to resurrect the senior DIY series and return it to its roots.

As mentioned, Trading Spaces launched a wave of DIY programs across the television landscape. Many of them with a similar format of the show. This included two spin-offs of Spaces: Trading Spaces: Family featured two families that would transform rooms in each other's living space; Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls was a kids-based show that featured a team of boys and a team of girls transforming each other's rooms into themed spaces.

Other shows to emulate the Spaces' way of doing things were TLC's While You Were Out and Clean Sweep. Instead of having two teams redesign a living space, Out renovated a room of a house while the occupant was away. Usually, a friend or family member would request the change. On Clean Sweep, renovations were also performed on a set of rooms, but it also involved cleaning out, selling and sometimes throwing out the abundance of junk collected by those wanting the renovations. At the same time that Sweep was airing on TLC, Clean House was beginning its run on the Style network with pretty much the same premise, except the whole house was cleared of clutter rather than just a few rooms.

Another show to come out of this DIY revolution was Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, hosted by Trading Spaces carpenter Ty Pennington. While Spaces featured the remodeling of two rooms, Home Edition featured the renovation of an entire house. This has meant the actual demolition of a home and its rebuilding from the ground up. The family involved is usually one that has had a recent crisis in their lives and the house, many times, is either too small or too dilapidated for them to live in for any long period of time. Along with his crew, Ty helps rebuild the homes in one week while the families go on vacation.

Most recently, DIY reality programming has morphed away from room and home design and into the world of real estate flips. Two of the more visible members of this new genre are Property Ladder and Flip That House, both on TLC. Together, they offer the same advice on the dos and don'ts when it comes to purchasing a house and turning it around for a profit. The only real difference is that Property Ladder is hosted by a real estate professional who has previously flipped properties. Meanwhile, A&E's Flip This House delves into a mix of DIY and workplace reality as it focuses on a number of real estate business across the United States that deal with house flipping.

While DIY reality programs began to gain in popularity, the makeover/lifestyle change reality program also began to take shape at the beginning of the 21st Century. The first of these to make an appearance was A Makeover Story. Premiering on TLC in 2000, Story became the anchor for other lifestyle/makeover shows that would grace the TLC schedule in a few short years. The concept of Story centered around two friends, neighbors or family members who were ready to change their looks. Each 30-minute episode would show them making changes to their clothing, hair and makeup. They would then reveal the changes to each others, then to their friends and family.

Over on the over-the-air networks, ABC's Extreme Makeover made its mark in 2002. Makeover examined the lives of individuals who volunteered to receive drastic Hollywood makeovers. Many times this involved extensive plastic surgery, crash dieting and changes in hair and clothes. At the end of each episode the subject of the extreme makeover would be revealed to a group of their friends and family who had not seen the progression of the change. In one of the weirdest spin-offs of television history, Extreme Makeover spun-off Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which soon became the more popular of the two. Eventually, the original series left the ABC schedule.

Meanwhile, back in the cable universe, the makeover show was making its move, thanks to another British import: What Not to Wear. Premiering in the UK in 2001 and moving over to the US in 2003, Wear features two fashion consultants who take an individual with poor fashion sense (usually nominated by a group of their peers) and allow them to shop for a brand-new wardrobe. Along the way, the hosts will guide the individual, usually with a pretty strong push, to shop for clothes that will accentuate their body structure. Hair styling and, for the women, makeup tips, are also given during each episode. As with Makeover, a reveal is performed by the individual to their friends at the end of each episode. Most of the time with positive results.

In the same year that Wear premiered, Bravo continued its transformation to being a reality-programming network with the series Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. A surprise hit for Bravo, Queer Eye addressed the stereotype that gay men are superior in fashion, personal grooming, interior design and culture. Five openly gay men (soon to be known as the "Fab Five") would perform a makeover on an individual, usually a straight man, to see if their specific specialties would actually help turn their lives around. The format was a success with the "Fab Five" becoming stars in their own right with numerous merchandising deals for each.

A year later, FOX addressed the makeover trend with The Swan. Swan was similar to Extreme Makeover in the sense that it took average-looking women and gave them extensive makeovers that involved a good deal of plastic surgery. What made this unique from Extreme was the beauty pageant nature of the competition. Two individuals were given makeovers each episode. The one who showed the most growth, inside and out, was given a chance to be in the season-ending Swan Pageant where someone would be named The Swan. Unfortunately, The Swan only lasted for one season on FOX, but left a lasting impression on fans and critics who deemed the makeovers to be too drastic and rough on the contestants.

While individuals over on The Swan were getting makeovers through medical means, other individuals on NBC were making lifestyle changes with hard work, determination and sweat. The Biggest Loser is one of those hybrid shows, as it is both a lifestyle change program and a game opera. It features two teams of players whose goal is to lose the most weight and body mass in order to become The Biggest Loser. The Biggest Loser is unique for a game opera. Though the team that doesn't lose the most weight has one of its members voted off the program, there aren't really any losers on this program, at least as the season progresses. All of the players who leave the series gain some sense of weight control and weight loss.

Changing rooms and changing bodies are not the only makeovers that TV has given the viewer over the last few years. From the car you drive to the family you come home to, a show has been created that focused on making it over. On MTV's Pimp My Ride (2004-2007) a car in poor condition would be restored and even customized for the owner. In TLC's Town Haul (2004) former Trading Spaces designer Genevieve Goder would work with town officials to rebuild an down-and-out small town to make it brand new. In Both Nanny 911 (FOX) and Supernanny (ABC), British nannies would take on dysfunctional families in order to correct the ways of the out-of-control children. Most recently, TLC's Secret Life of a Soccer Mom asks the question of whether or not you would give up your current stay-at-home life with your kids in order to work in a profession you've always dreamed about.

While the makeover/lifestyle reality program has morphed over the years, it still remains a very popular and profitable program. Without egos to get in the way, these shows are as close to reality as viewers get these days. And, as reality becomes its own enemy, these may be the only shows that remain on the air when the dust clears.

WHO WATCHES REALITY TV AND WHY?

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