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Home, fashion makeovers prove auds, nets strive to make good impression

While the casual viewer may never end up with decorative straw on their walls or their beloved fireplace ruined as the participants in TLC’s “Trading Spaces” have, they’re tuning in to the show in droves.

Leading a wider trend in home improvement programming, “Trading Spaces” regularly ranks in the top 20 on basic cable. At this point, it’s just not the power tool/glue gun set tuning in anymore.

“Trading Spaces,” a “shelter” series that airs on Discovery Communications’ TLC, has an audience of more than 2.7 million viewers in primetime Saturdays, which means it’s crossing over to the casual viewer hunkered down on the couch rather than just do-it-yourselfers.

And TLC’s competitors, such as Home & Garden Television, are paying attention, adding some oomph to their programming mission, while cablers such as TBS Superstation are vying to attract the same aud — adult nesters, male and female, with money to spend on sprucing up their homes.

Over on Style!, there’s “Area,” where pros help Los Angeles’ design neophytes create better living spaces.

Top designers have $2,500 and a single weekend to help homeowners create stylish abodes.Upcoming in October on cabler Women’s Entertainment, Courteney Cox Arquette exec produces “Mix It Up,” which takes a close look at individuals moving in together — be they friends, lovers, husband and wives, mothers and daughters — who are often at odds stylistically.

Now sponsors such as hardware superstore Lowe’s are upping the ante, embedding their brand into shows such as “Trading Spaces,” heading into its fourth season, and TBS’ home renovation series “House Rules,” which debuts in October.

“Trading Spaces” is the gold standard with its wide appeal, according to John Rash, a media analyst for Campbell Mithun Advertising. “Not only does ‘Trading Spaces’ work in its own right (as a lifestyle show) but it has also brought in more casual viewers to that category. ‘Trading Spaces’ has done for TLC what ‘Emeril Live’ did for the Food Network.”

While home improvement is not a new trend — genre stalwart “This Old House,” preemed in 1978 and still airs on PBS with reruns on HGTV — this type of reality programming appears to be on the upswing, with no slowdown in sight.

According to Rash, the number of people interested in their homes will increase in response to the faltering economy and the possibility of more terrorist threats. “As the world grows more complex, consumers look more toward creature comforts and, most of all, the home,” he says. “Many people are trying to control the one area that remains in their domain. And this has accelerated with accelerating home prices, as opposed to the downward spiral of the equity markets. As people invest more money (in their homes), invariably they’re investing more time and most importantly making an increased emotional investment.”

In addition to TLC, Rash says, Scripps-owned cablers HGTV and the Food Network have seized an audience opportunity with this trend.

Part of the success, it seems, is in the fusion of more entertaining elements into a once-staid genre. “Trading Spaces,” for instance, which is a remake of the BBC’s “Changing Rooms,” plays almost like a gameshow, with two sets of neighbors swapping homes, each with the assignment of revamping a room with only two days, a small budget and a headstrong designer to lead the way.

On air since 1996, “Changing Rooms” spawned a string of cheeky makeover shows on the BBC that are now crossing the Pond. Among them, “What Not to Wear,” in which two stylists deconstruct a fashion victim’s wardrobe and infuse some chic into her everyday life.

“Everyone has done the instructional cookery show or gardening show, but I think what we’ve developed here that has been exportable have been the shows that use that theme, but not necessarily in the same old-fashioned way,” says Colin Jarvis, BBC Worldwide’s director of programming and operations. “‘Changing Rooms’ is a do-it-yourself show, but in a new way, a competitive way, while still maintaining its instructional element.”

U.S. viewers can catch “Changing Rooms” and the British version of “What Not to Wear” on BBC America — which operates as a partnership between Discovery and the BBC — and aside from the accents, they might catch a few key differences.

“U.S. versions become faster, in terms of moving (the show) along. They’re less complicated, easier on the eye, with more explanation to the viewers,” Jarvis says. “Probably because you have viewers who are much more remote-control conscious. If it doesn’t click in the first 15 seconds, they’ve moved on somewhere else.”

Saturday night is where the broadcasters have traditionally had the most trouble retaining their audience, losing out to video rentals and cable channels.

“Less people use the medium on Saturday night, but, most importantly, they use it differently,” analyst Rash says. “There are a lot of parents home watching with their kids who are in the appropriate demographic range for home improvement and home exploration programs.”

TLC used its post-“Trading Spaces” Saturday slot to launch both surprise design show “While You Were Out” and the U.S. version of “What Not to Wear,” which will air on Friday nights beginning in July.

The attention garnered by “Trading Spaces” has been beneficial to rival HGTV. Net, which launched in 1994 and is seen in approximately 80 million homes, debuted its budget-conscious and deadline-oriented “Design on a Dime” in January.

Michael Dingley, HGTV’s senior VP of programming, says, “We continue to address and service (do-it-yourselfers), but try to reach beyond that to bring others into the tent: people who love what home is about, the emotion and the security.”

This evolution has permeated HGTV’s weekday primetime schedule.

“We no longer have how-to shows. ‘Simply Quilts’ at 9 p.m. wouldn’t necessarily work,” Dingley says, although he notes that there are plenty of how-to shows airing on HGTV during the daytime. “Primetime is much more story-driven, although not at the expense of providing information to the viewer.”

Come fall, TBS will air its new series “House Rules” in primetime. The show’s premise pits three teams of amateur home remodelers against each other with one team winning the home they’ve renovated.

“Maybe we’ve missed the mark for years,” says Bill Cox, TBS’ senior VP of programming, on airing home improvement series. “People are interested in what they deal with in their lives, in making a quality life for themselves, in their gardens or inside their homes. Maybe there was an unsung number of people that we never reached.”

And now TLC will try to reach a younger demo with “Trading Spaces,” treading into territory already claimed by MTV’s “Cribs” and VH1’s “Rock the House,” where homeowners are surprised to find their parlor room redecorated by the likes of Snoop Dogg.

In July, TLC will preem a family version of “Trading Spaces” to air Sunday nights during the family hour at 7 p.m., with teams comprising family members who will include at least one teenager or tween (9-13). “‘Trading Spaces’ has a huge following among teen girls,” says TLC senior VP-G.M. Roger Marmet. “This is an opportunity to see themselves actually doing the work. The jeopardy element will be the kids working with their parents.

“It never quite goes as you hope it will,” Marmet adds with a laugh.

And if TLC can tap the next generation of home-improvers, there may not be, as TBS’ Cox says, any reason for this trend to die out. “There’s still an appetite there and it doesn’t change year to year. It’s informational, so it can last a good long while, like ’60 Minutes’ or ‘Dateline.’ Those shows can go on forever.”

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