Cablers hammer the point home

Copycats risk running successful idea into the ground

HOLLYWOOD — If imitation is the sincerest form of TV, then TLC’s “Trading Spaces” is blushing several shades of crimson.

Since its 2000 debut, the home makeover show with a twist has spawned a series of cable copycats, from TLC’s own “While You Were Out” to VH1’s “Rock the House,” all wanting in on the hammer-and-nail ratings windfall. (“Spaces” is itself the U.S. answer to the BBC’s “Changing Rooms,” which debuted four years ago.)

And the cablescape, now littered with home-decor shows, will bow several more “Spaces” spinoffs in the coming months. At the rate new “Trading Spaces” clones are multiplying, cablers apparently have co-opted one of the most dangerous rules from the network playbook: Take a successful idea and run it into the ground.

It has only been in recent years that cable looked in the mirror and started copying itself to a dizzying degree.

Cable also went cuckoo over docu-style takes on quirky celebs last year after the Osbourne clan redefined dysfunction on MTV.

In the wake of “The Osbournes” came shows revolving around Anna Nicole Smith (E!’s “The Anna Nicole Show”), Chuck Woolery (Game Show Network’s “Chuck Woolery: Naturally Stoned”), Gary Busey (Comedy Central’s “I’m With Busey”) and might-have-beens Liza Minnelli and David Gest (VH1’s DOA reality project “Liza & David”).

And the bandwagon doesn’t stop there. Climbing aboard are Roseanne Barr starrer “The Real Roseanne Show,” slated for a primetime August premiere on ABC, an unscripted Jessica Simpson-Nick Lachey skein for MTV, and ABC Family’s six-week miniseries “Tying the Knot: The Wedding of Melissa Joan Hart.”

And before that, cable took A&E’s fronted personality-driven docu skein “Biography” and flogged it nearly to death, giving rise to VH1’s “Behind the Music” and “Driven,” E!’s “True Hollywood Story” and, to a lesser degree, MTV’s “Diary.”

Still, the “Spaces” phenomenon is notable: More than a dozen like-minded shows are on the air or in the works. That’s a sharp change of course for cable, which is traditionally known for its groundbreaking, alternative programming.

“Originality is still there, but it’s harder to do,” says veteran cable-programming adviser Lynne Buening.

But just like the broadcast webs, basic cablers need to pull in ad dollars. And makeover shows are proven ratings winners.

“If you are not in the game by having at least one version of it, you’re not going to compete,” Buening says. “I don’t think the format will ever fully go away.”

Discovery Channel exec VP-general manager Clark Bunting, however, predicts the market for such shows may reach saturation in a season or two. But better safe than sorry: He’s armed the net with “Rally Around the House,” where an entire neighborhood rewards a deserving homeowner. Meanwhile, Discovery’s “Surprise by Design” remains the cabler’s top-rated daytime series.

TLC G.M. Roger Marmet cautions that “Spaces” clones don’t work for everyone.

“For some of these channels, it just doesn’t make sense,” he says, unfazed by the possible watering-down of the show’s brand. “If you look at the difference in ratings, it’s pretty dramatic.”

“Spaces” pulls in an average 3.8 million viewers in its Saturday timeslot (plus another 11 million cumulative viewers during its weekday repeats), often edging the broadcast nets’ primetime entries. It has vaulted TLC into a top-performing cabler, virtually lodging it in the top 10 among basic-cable nets, and often winning the key adults 18-49 demo.

It’s safe to say most of the copycat skeins will do only a fragment of “Spaces’ ” impressive cable numbers. Bunting says some smaller nets seem to be betting on the format simply to bolster brands.

Country Music Television has “Ultimate Country Home” — 13 country music stars help beautify a 3,600-square-foot home — which nabbed 2.2 million entries for its sweepstakes to win a celeb-decorated domicile. Fledgling women’s net Oxygen debuted “Facelift” in March. And Courteney Cox is producing “Mix It Up” for WE.

“You see a lot of networks that, from a brand standpoint, are in search of identity,” Bunting says. “They’re thinking, ‘What’s working for everyone? Let’s try that.'”

But it’s not just baby networks homing in on a trend.

Music nets MTV and VH1 bowed “Crib Crashers” and “Rock the House,” respectively, earlier this year. A&E has added three home improvement entries — “Makeover Mamas,” “Sell This House” and “House of Dreams” — to its upcoming slate. TBS has “House Rules” in the works. And between Discovery-NBC’s Saturday morning “Spaces” offspring, “Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls,” for the moppet crowd, and ABC Family’s upcoming “Knock First” for teens and “Bachelor Pads” for men, no demo has been left out.

“I’ve seen a lot of wannabes, and I think a great number of them miss the powerful storytelling element in ‘Trading Spaces.’ We’re not interested in instructions,” says “Spaces” exec producer Stephen Schwartz, now programming veep for Style Network.

But if self-plagiarism was a crime, Schwartz would be found guilty — Style is readying two of its own “Spaces” spinoffs, “Clean House” and “Guess Who Is Coming to Redecorate?” for summer.

Execs insist they’re simply obeying the laws of supply and demand. “It’s what they’re asking for,” A&E VP of docu development Nancy Dubuc says. “The challenge is bringing in a twist that differentiates it from the rest.” A&E and TBS will unspool their — here’s that twist — gameshow-style series later this year.

With all the home hubbub in cable land, execs are left to wonder why broadcast TV hasn’t followed suit.

“It’s probably just a matter of time until some broadcast network figures out that they want to do something with this,” Schwartz says. “I’m sure there is somebody somewhere saying, “OK, here is where we are going to schedule our ‘Trading Spaces.’ “