Refacing Reality TV

Remodelers put a good face on the home-improvement television boom

July 31, 2004

 

The television time crunch can create a downright chaotic work site. Knowing how to share space with camera operators and designers requires detailed pre-job planning.

In the last two years, the national obsession with home improvement and reality TV have resulted in numerous remodeling programs breaking into primetime. The most common detraction heard from viewers and professionals alike about the home improvement shows currently on the air is that they do not (or cannot) portray the home improvement process accurately-homes aren't completed in 26 minutes (with commercial breaks), and clients don't magically go away only to reappear when all is all shiny and new.

"There's always an element of suspended disbelief," says Eric Stromer, owner of Big House Construction and carpenter on TLC's "Clean Sweep," "and we addressed that by saying upfront that we have a 30-person crew doing the work; it's not magic."

Still, some contractors worry that news reports criticizing such shows-like a May 17 Newsweek article -could worsen contractors' reputation with the public.

The behind-the-scenes reality is that the altruistic, educational and recreational aspects of these shows were what overwhelmingly drew remodelers to participate, in spite of 20-hour shoots: After all, a chance to be on television is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Based on the experiences of remodeling companies that have delved into this medium, here are three crucial "Ps":

Planning-not just for the assigned project but also to ensure that your business will not suffer from the sizable time commitment and brainpower required - is central.

With respect to profit, don't expect to make one. Remodeling contractors say that despite having product donated or paid for by the show, they still took a hit because of intensive labor requirements and time commitment. So, your company must be able to absorb the loss and compensate workers adequately.

Last, multiple cameramen and scrutinizing producers will crowd your workspace, so patience is key.

"As a remodeler, you manage your clients' expectations; these are just television shows," says Sal Ferro, president of Alure Home Improvement on Long Island. "If you allow your client to set their expectations based on perceptions from a television show, you've done a poor job. When done right, these shows promote the industry and show contractors in a positive light, and they separate professionals from the 'truck slammers.'"

 


 

Doug Cornwell and Sal Ferro (right), CR, CKD, President of Alure Home Improvement (East Meadow, N.Y.)

Show: ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" (Alure's episode aired May 6)

"Reel" ambition: "Extreme Makeover" is a crunch against time: renovating an entire home, including the exterior and landscaping, in seven days for a deserving family. The show wanted a contractor that could do a project in New York City; another remodeler who already had wrapped two episodes of the series recommended Alure. Ferro liked the sheer challenge of the project - a complete renovation of an 800-square-foot apartment belonging to two firemen who were involved in the Sept. 11 rescue mission - as well as the possibility for Alure to receive exposure nationwide.

Lights, cameras, action: Having just two weeks to scout the location and work out all the logistics of the planned 12-hour shoot, Ferro and Cornwell, Alure's director of operations, faced yet another big challenge: Their episode was to be the first live edition of "Extreme Makeover," so the crew would have to come back two hours before the broadcast for a real-time finish. To psychologically prepare their 40 workers for the lengthy, grueling experiment (which called for removing walls, building a whole new bathroom, completely redoing the kitchen and providing new flooring), Ferro and Cornwell created a presentation outlining the action plan and gathered the crew three days prior to the shoot to discuss the project. A visit from a heckling Regis Philbin mere hours before the project was to be unveiled rallied the crew to finish, even as they worked with no more than three hours of sleep and were still tearing down walls past the allotted time frame.

Real talk: "The part that's not heralded as much is the people aspect. The amount of stress we worked under is unlike any other job. Where we succeeded the most was in team building - we walked away with pride and tears in our eyes because of what we'd done for the family, but also because of how we were able to unite our team."

It's a wrap: Ferro says he, his employees and company signage were never shown or mentioned during the broadcast and is ultimately disappointed that his company did not get more recognition. However, he's since worked with the show's producers to create co-branded marketing pieces for Alure that use the Extreme Makeover logo, including clothing, signage, Web ads and a television commercial.

 


 

Stephen Hann, CGR, GMB, President of Hann Builders (Stafford, Texas)

Show: "House Rules" on TBS (series premiered October 10, 2003; ran for 13 weeks)

"Reel" Ambition: Hann's name came up via interior decorators he'd worked with and through his association with the Remodelors Council in Houston. He was chosen after doing a series of interviews, including an on-camera one.

Lights, Cameras, Action: The show pit three teams against each other, each with the task of renovating a whole house. Each episode focused on a different room, and the judges rated each team's work. The show started taping in May 2003 and filmed every Sunday for almost 16 weeks, with a minimum 12-hour shoot. Serving as "The Builder" judge, Hann was responsible for inspecting the quality and level of completion of each of the contestants' projects - given that the contestants were amateurs, Hann focused on how well they planned and executed their work.

Real Talk: "Doing this made me more aware of the power of perception. I was reminded of the challenges for the homeowner. These couples had to balance the drama of remodeling while balancing the emotion involved in their relationship ups and downs, and everything was amplified and magnified. It put the value of professionals in context and highlighted the difficulty of the process. It exemplified where you need professionals to guide the people and the process."

It's a wrap: With Lowe's as the chief sponsor of "House Rules," Hann - who does not see their installed services as a threat - learned from the company's business model by observing how marketing, promotion and branding dollars work on a large scale. With all this insight, Hann has tweaked his direct marketing techniques and marketing materials.

 


 

Wayne Minde and Linda Minde, general manager of Tri-Lite Builders (Chandler, Ariz.)

Show: The Do It Yourself Network's "DIY to the Rescue" (Tri-Lite's episode aired June 24)

"Reel" ambition: Producers, who sought an award-winning contractor, found Tri-Lite through NARI. The company signed on for the marketing prospects and the opportunity to "do something different."

Lights, cameras, action: On the show, professionals fix a project that a DIYer was unable to execute properly or complete. Minde had about six weeks before the three-day February filming to coordinate all the labor, track down subs and inventory all the product for a cultured marble shower in a master bath suite that the homeowners had attempted to disassemble - for two years, they'd been using their children's bathroom while an ironing board masked their shower's ruins.

Real talk: "This has been huge as far as name recognition is concerned, and that's big in an area like ours that's growing so fast. Kitchens and baths aren't typical do-it-yourself projects, and I think there are sometimes unrealistic expectations. Homeowners jump in and haven't always thought it through, and that's probably why so many of these projects are left undone. It shows that without taking design into account, you create a whole stack of issues."

It's a wrap: Minde bemoans the lack of recognition and air time for the company and wishes they could have had a head start on certain aspects of the work. However, she says the process helped strengthen relationships with Tri-Lite's trade contractors, who changed their schedules to make sure the project went as smoothly as possible. Since the screening, Tri-Lite has received coverage in two large local newspapers, and their work has produced a strong lead, as the featured homeowners are considering doing their kitchen with the company in the near future.

 


 

Matt Plaskoff, owner of Plaskoff Construction (Tarzana, Calif.)

Show: ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" (three episodes with Plaskoff Construction as lead contractor; aired February 22, March 28 and May 6)

"Reel" ambition: Producers scouted Plaskoff's company through its Web site and a recommendation by a contractor who did a pilot episode of "Extreme Makeover." Plaskoff, driven by the excitement of being on television, thought the prime-time national advertising would be great for his company.

Lights, cameras, action: For his first episode, Plaskoff had the three weeks before the first day of shooting to get the project totally permitted, engineered and prepped. He scheduled the work down to 15-minute increments for the 100-person crew of subs and employees. On each of his first two episodes, Plaskoff and his team completely gutted and renovated the homes - one 1,500 square feet, the other 2,400 - in about five days.

Real talk: "The show has given us credibility to say to the homeowner, 'We can go as fast as you want to go - here's the DVD from the show, this is how fast we can do it,' especially if the homeowner isn't around to question and make changes like in this project. This was a great team-building exercise for employees and subs, and it wouldn't be nearly as attractive if we weren't helping a needy family."

It's a wrap: Plaskoff is now the general contractor consultant for the second season of "Extreme Makeover." In addition, he is taking the efficiencies he's learned doing the show's speedy remodels and is seeking to create a national one-week bath franchise as an offshoot of his high-end company.

 


 

Eric Stromer, owner of Big House Construction (Woodland Hills, Calif.)

Show: "Clean Sweep" on TLC (series premiered Sept. 13, 2003)

"Reel" ambition: A former client knew of the casting call for the show and suggested that Stromer audition. Having no intention to try out, he went to meet a friend at the audition, where the director offered him the job.

Lights, cameras, action: "Clean Sweep," which creates a wide array of organizational and storage solutions for homeowners, shoots four days a week for 10 to 12 hours. Stromer is the on-site carpenter.

Real talk: "Doing the show has given me perspective on the incredible need for storage in homes; you have to keep it from becoming a clutter trap. In my business, I'm more consultative about organization in each of my projects with regard to systems for kids' rooms, offices and kitchens, or in designing shelving and platform beds, for example. The show also is making home remodeling and improvement a great pastime and teaching women and kids to pick up tools and get involved."

It's a wrap: The show has been a starting point for Stromer to become an "on-camera carpenter personality" - he has his own Web site (www.ericstromer.com), is working on a book and has signed on for a second season of "Clean Sweep."

 


Tips on Getting "Discovered"


None of these individuals or companies actively sought the television spotlight: They were recommended, tracked down by producers or simply in the right place at the right time. Four commonalities among the group:

  • Professional organizations: Often the easiest and most obvious way to begin locating contractors, some of these shows’ researchers found participants by initially looking through membership rolls, then following up with local chapters.
  • Networking: Form relationships with remodelers nationwide through attending trade shows and joining peer organizations. Also, make connections with your customers and other home-improvement professionals outside of work; social ties bind.
  • Awards: Being an award-winning remodeler makes you more attractive to producers and consumers alike. With awards under your belt, you can position yourself as an expert or establish a niche
  • Web sites: A well-designed and informative site will set you apart with the media. Web presence gives you legitimacy, and it's a platform where you can mold your company's message and present it to the world.

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