The Rise and Fall of Trading Spaces, the Home Design Show That Ruled the World

In Depth

Sitting at home on a Saturday afternoon scrolling through television channels in the year 2015, it hardly seems as though home design shows could ever have been groundbreaking stuff; they’ve become so plentiful that they have a network devoted to them. But in the early 2000s, there was one home design show that changed the course of television and cultural history: Trading Spaces, on TLC. The success and failure of this program traces a line in its network’s programming, from reality TV as aspirational basic education to the mild Duggar-filled monstrosity it is today.

Trading Spaces premiered 15 years ago today, on in October 13, 2000, and like many great shows to precede and follow it (ahem Shark Tank), the idea came from another show that had been successful overseas: in this case, the BBC’s Changing Rooms. Its premise, like that of most programs created at the dawn of the reality television boom, was relatively simple. Two sets of people who knew each other would literally trade their spaces for two days, and with the help of a designer, a carpenter and a budget of $1,000, transform one room in the opposite’s home.

This was the early days of TLC, when the network was still somewhat associated with its original brand as The Learning Channel, before it moved on entirely to programs with dramatic, personality-oriented premises. (“In the big noisy world of cable television, it has a mere gnat of a profile: The Mr. Peebles of cable networks, if you will,” television critic Verne Gay wrote in Newsday in 1998.) In the ‘90s, their tagline became “Life Unscripted,” and Trading Spaces fit nicely into that set-up: reality programs meant to mostly capture normal life, rather than exaggerate it. “TLC has morphed into the channel for people who are looking for a user’s guide to everyday life,” cable programmer Lynne Buening told Variety in 2002.

Trading Spaces was not an instantaneous success. When it first came on the air, as the New York Daily News reported in 2001, it was given less-than-stellar programming slots, airing in the late afternoon on the weekdays and in the morning on the weekends, bringing in roughly half a million viewers an episode. “That’s nowhere near the ratings of such daytime giants as Oprah (7.1 million viewers per show) and Martha Stewart (1.7 million), and it’s leagues behind Changing Rooms’ 12 million viewers,” they wrote.

But that quickly changed. In just a year or two, the show became the top cable program on Saturday nights, after being moved to an 8 p.m. slot, with the New York Times calling it “TLC’s prime-time jewel.” It boasted 9 million viewers an episode, and by January 2002, had produced at least one water-cooler moment: the now-infamous episode where homeowner Pam cries over the loss of her brick fireplace, which has been covered with a white wooden facade despite the fact that she and her husband had left behind instructions not to touch it.

“I’m going to have to leave the room,” Pam says, of designer Doug Wilson’s take.

“Boy, she’s not happy. She’s really not happy,” her husband John says, as Pam is heard crying offscreen. “I don’t know even where to start; I mean I see one piece of furniture that looks remotely the way I left it, and the rest of it is just so not us.”

“Did you enjoy the experience?” asks host Paige Davis.

“It was wonderful,” he responds. “This two minutes I would go through again, just for the experience.”

“Pam’s breakdown on the Jan. 19 episode was an Olympian moment in this homespun corner of reality television,” the Times wrote.

“Oh my God, wasn’t that incredible?’ said Walter Curley, a 35-year-old record store employee in Albany. ‘When my boss Sharon brought up the crying episode, we spent the next hour ignoring customers and talking about it.”

Regret—or the threat of it—was a crucial figure in the show’s background. As demonstrated in a description of the episode in Trading Spaces: Behind the Scenes, a book published for uber-fans that came out after Season 3, the show’s success seemed to be predicated on walking a careful line between relishing and regretting design mistakes. Mostly, producers wanted to get an extreme response:

A classic Reveal that must be seen to be believed! The denim living room homeowners are extremely disappointed with their room (the male homeowner surmises Doug’s design as “I see a lot of firewood”), and the female homeowner leaves the room in tears while her microphone continues running. The episode has a somewhat happy ending, with the male homeowner noting that “at least the room isn’t orthogonal [like one of Hildi’s infamous designs].”

“It was a completely unexpected reaction,” Frank Bielec, the designer who worked with Pam and John on their neighbor’s home told the Times. “But it was totally honest. Now if you want reality, that was it.”

That was reality then, at least. The next year, in a new article, the Times described show EP Stephen Schwartz boasting that Trading Spaces had “thousands of applicants a week from across the country begging to take part,” noting that “they also have a long list of decorators wanting to become part of their regular teams.”

“TLC’s transition to its newer self has been a roaring success,” the National Post of Canada wrote a year later. “It’s the second-highest-rated cable network in the United States among the all-important 18- to 49-year-old demographic and its viewership grew 13% last year.” Not only were ratings high, costs were low; an episode of the show, Variety reported, was less than $100,000 to make, versus that of an hour long scripted dramatic program, which started at a $1 million.

Trading Spaces was hardly the only successful home design program; during its heyday in the early 2000s, there were over 30 home design shows on television. What was so captivating about this one in particular? The National Post praised its twist on a “game-show format,” taking the basic premise of cooking and home design shows that had gained popularity on bare-bones networks like PBS and raising the stakes. While public television made Julia Child famous by just filming her cooking, post-Y2K audiences required more, and Trading Spaces delivered it—along with a heaping reinforcement of the importance of the home for white middle-class Americans, and the relatively newfound ability for anyone to become famous through television quite quickly.

The rise of internet message boards likely helped Trading Spaces as well. A precursor to Twitter, fans gathered to discuss their favorite episodes on the web, going so far as to create drinking games for use during viewings, which were chock full of inside jokes about the cast and format, the ultimate compliment for a successful show. (Drink when: “Laurie says ‘Ya’ll are fabulous’ ‘Ya’ll are the best’ or ‘Ya’ll are fantastic.’” “Frank has sweatstains.” “someone mentions Genevieve’s bare feet.” “Ty climbs into cabinetry.” “a homeowner says “I have to put my foot down.”)

Comments on the message boards mostly ranged from thoughts about room design to personal preferences about designers/carpenters Ty Pennington and Amy Wyn. (Pennington, particularly “hunky,” would go on to find huge success hosting Extreme Makeover: Home Edition on ABC.)

As the show made celebrities out of its cast, TLC began bringing in actual celebrities: 7th Heaven cast members showed up for an episode where Jessica Biel and Beverley Mitchell teamed up against George and Geoff Stults, as did Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks. The network launched several spinoffs, including Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls and Trading Spaces: Family. They forged relationships with Lowe’s, who sponsored the program.

Throughout its growth, the show managed to capture a strange combination of feel-good and reveal, of down-home and gloss. While Season 1 was hosted by the perky Alex McLeod, the subsequent success of the show has been largely tied to Paige Davis, who took over in Season 2 and was even perkier than McLeod, if that’s possible. With Davis at the helm, the show’s crew of designers and carpenters—practically all of whom had some background in theater or performance—became stars, however briefly. They were celebrated in Trading Spaces: Behind the Scenes, which reads like a series of gushing magazine profiles, down to the way nearly everyone in the crew seemed stunned to find themselves suddenly successful, appearing regularly on TV.

But Davis would stay in show business, getting cast as Roxie Hart in Chicago on Broadway in 2004. She told the New York Times about her fear that her hosting days would prove incompatible with theater, imagining what people would say:

“Home-improvement host on Broadway.” Her eyes rolled. “What’s theater coming to?”

In the piece, Davis explained how, just a few short years earlier, she struggled to even get an audition for the host position on Trading Spaces. (Davis and her husband would later be featured on the TLC show A Wedding Story which launched in the late ’90s, along with A Baby Story—foreshadowing the direction the network was moving.) But her star power became so undeniable that the Chicago producer compared Davis’s inclusion to the much-lauded revamp of A Raisin in the Sun.

Casting Ms. Davis has meant a boon in ticket sales said Barry Weissler, co-producer of “Chicago.” “She’s doing for us what Puff Daddy did for ‘Raisin in the Sun,’” said Mr. Weissler, who estimated sales have jumped 25 percent since Ms. Davis joined the cast in late June and is appearing through Aug. 8. “We’re back to enjoying the same type of grosses we accomplished six or seven years ago.”

But good things can’t last forever, as Davis seemed to recognize. “My heart sinks to my stomach to think that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. So was Trading Spaces: as some viewers warned, the show was about to become a victim of its own success.

In January 2005, things changed. Davis was fired as host, and not replaced, with the show moving to a “host-less” format. In 2006, TLC changed their tagline from “Life Unscripted” to “Live and Learn.” Adweek reported that this meant that the network would be talking “overly about learning” again, going as far with a new “Life Lessons” ad campaign that they started selling statuettes like “plasticized Precious Moments figurines” about the theme.

Wrote the Times:

‘’Live and Learn’’ is the new tagline for Discovery’s TLC network starting March 27. Network executives hope it conveys to viewers that the channel is now a place for adults in their 30’s who are what the network refers to as “in transition’’ — buying their first house, getting married or having children.
Investors and advertisers, meanwhile, can only hope that the network has taken its own slogan to heart as it tries to arrest a three-year plunge in its ratings.

The network’s prime-time viewership had dropped from 1.2 million in 2003 to around 720,000 in 2005. They’d “pioneered the idea of big reality shows, but they don’t have it to themselves anymore,” media consultant Erica Gruen told the paper, harshly but honestly explaining that TLC had to “come up with better original ideas” than some of their competitors, who could rely on reruns of scripted programs to pad their schedules.

With their new slogan, they seemed to be leaning once again on the kind of basic aspirational “education” that Trading Spaces provided, but in reality, the show’s wholesomeness was getting outpaced. David Abraham, TLC’s new executive vice president and general manager, referred to as the “architect of TLC’s makeover,” told the Times that the show—once their shining glory—was “not at the center of our strategy for the future.”

For the next few years, Trading Spaces chugged along, experimenting with new tactics that didn’t quite seem to catch viewers the way their old format once had; many of their best-known cast members had departed the show as well.

In December 2007, they aired a “hipster edition” of the show shot in Philadelphia. After some prompting from friends Ryan and Aryon, who were part of the same Philadelphia art scene, artist Rose Luardo and her boyfriend at the time Thom applied to be on the show, mostly, Luardo says, for the experience—and to get a new couch for her new, not-yet-finished home. “Why was it hipster?” Luardo asks. “I guess it was hipster because… everybody was in the arts.”

“If the entire room fucking sucks, at least I will have a piece of furniture in there and a goddamn couch to sit on,” Luardo says of her thought process about going on Trading Spaces. “Oh my god, was I wrong.”

Excerpts of the episode are on YouTube; in it, you can tell that Luardo and her friends are attempting to be funny. Thom wore a wig the whole episode, explaining that they “were playing with the convention of being on the show like that” for comedy’s sake. You can also see that the show producers seemed to want to present them as less normal than they were.

“I guess my dream was, I’m gonna get a sofa. What they got me was lawn furniture,” Luardo says, admitting that she was able to enjoy it eventually—adding, “but I put it outside.”

She hadn’t been an avid viewer of Trading Spaces before she applied to be on the show, but she was aware of its legacy as a show that featured “suburban, cookie-cutter houses” and people with a traditional feel. The producers seemed to want Luardo and her friends because they were different. But, as Luardo explains, many of their “shenanigans” were still cut, and although she got a gift card from the show (which she used to repaint her crazy-colored walls) and a free piece of furniture from the designer she worked with, the producers mainly seemed to want to provoke a reaction—both from the audience and from her.

Her experience seems to speak to a problem the show faced throughout its run, which may have grown in later years: a need to get ratings that drove dramatic, unwelcome makeovers. Part of that, Luardo speculates, is just the reality television process, which has become ever more brutal as the years have gone on. The landscape that existed when Trading Spaces launched had shifted by the time the show started to wind down.

A few months after the “Hipster edition” episode aired, TLC faced another revamp. In March 2008, they launched their slogan “Life. Surprises.” and new shows that would ultimately turn them into the tabloid sensation people know now, like What Not to Wear, Say Yes to the Dress, Little People, Big World, LA Ink and, most notably John & Kate Plus 8. A few months prior, a “new team” running the network had announced they were bringing back Paige Davis as Trading Spaces host, as a “top priority was to return the channel’s one-time tent-pole show to its former glory.”

“I was initially freaked,” Davis told the Chicago Tribune, “because I couldn’t imagine how this turn of events would have happened. I would not have imagined anyone like TLC asking me back. When I found out it was all new people at TLC, then it made more sense.”

“It had been expressed to me that the new people at TLC didn’t believe that ‘Trading Spaces’ had really run its course, that it had been run into the ground. (They believed) that there’d be a way to restore it to its original fun and family entertainment and bounce and joy.

She added, “They wanted to give the fans another chance to see the show they actually loved, as opposed to the show it became.”

That chance proved to be short-lived. A year later, Davis revealed the show had been cancelled, somewhat quietly, as network president Angela Shapiro-Mathes, who’d championed it, had left after only eight months on the job. Before the show was cancelled, TLC had attempted to, as Reality TV World noted, “bring ‘an emotional hook to every angle’ by having each episode feature two couples that had a less perfect relationship, such as divorced couples, dueling mothers-in-laws, workplace rivals and feuding neighbors.” This focus on interpersonal relationships and emotion would be the driver behind the network’s quest for ratings in the coming years, ultimately propelling into fame, fortune and then mild disaster, with shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and 17/18/19 Kids and Counting.

What the future holds for TLC and reality television is hardly comforting to those depressed by the state of programming today. The network has seemed hellbent on continuing to try to appropriately milk their current scandal-plagued stars for all their worth, despite the fact that they’ve gotten plenty of flack for that decision. If all of that negativity towards the channel is warranted is another story. In truth, they shifted strategies because the ratings spoke for themselves: the public was bored with what they were offering. They had to literally keep up with the Kardashians (that show premiered in 2007).

“Reality shows make me a little…it’s like, I shouldn’t be watching this, I shouldn’t be allowed to watch this,” Luardo says. “But it’s interesting: This stuff exists in the world, which means people want it and are interested in it.” Trading Spaces was the hottest thing for years, until it wasn’t. People wanted more, and they got it.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image via Getty, Gif by Bobby Finger

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