'This Old House' is built frame by frame
The long-running home-improvement show requires multiple takes and a talented crew
WINCHESTER, MASS. — While it's not surprising to see a small army of remodeling pros descend on a suburban home, the crew working in Winchester, Mass., on this day is no ordinary collection of contractors.
Some of the craftsmen hopping out of the pickups are among the most famous on-air talents in home-improvement television, including master carpenter Norm Abram and general contractor Tom Silva. These guys are stars of "This Old House," a long-running PBS favorite.
It's 8 a.m., and joining them on the "set" are a producer, his assistant, a cameraman, a lighting technician, the show's publicist, one of the homeowners, and a few others. By the time taping begins an hour or so later, about a dozen people are scattered around the backyard.
The TV audience will see only two people, though: Roger Cook, the show's regular landscaper, and guest Bob Childs, an expert on an insect pest that threatens some of the property's large hemlock trees.
The ringleader is executive producer/director Russell Morash, who is putting them through their paces. There is no script, so walk-through and talk-through rehearsals proceed until Mr. Morash, the show's creator, is satisfied.
On average, six takes are required. "There's a point we reach called the Morash 85 percent rule," he explains. "If it's 85 percent of the ultimate, that's good enough."
Morash is an expert at taking the often-imprecise ramblings of an expert, honing them, and capturing the results before things begin to feel mechanical.
Mr. Cook and Mr. Childs are touring the property, discussing what needs to be done. When Cook talks too fast, Morash who stands off-camera wearing a headset and holding a small video monitor implores, "Relax, I won't shoot you."
When Cook seems to be whispering toward the camera, Morash barks, "You're being too confidential."
Only after the taping is done does Morash drop his guard and tell the insect specialist, "Sorry about the abuse, Bob. That's my middle name."
If he seems demanding, though, the results speak for themselves. The show is a hit so much so, in fact, that its reruns, "This Old House Classics," air on Home & Garden Television (HGTV). Starting in October, a 30-minute program called "Ask This Old House" will be bundled with the regular half-hour show to create "The New This Old House Hour."
The old standby has covered a lot of ground since it debuted in 1979 with a Boston house renovation. It now includes a slick magazine, books, videos, a website (www.thisoldhouse.com), and numerous public appearances by the resident craftsmen.
" 'This Old House' is like a smorgasbord," says Steve Thomas, the on-air host for the past 13 years. "We present a groaning table of possibilities in design, in materials, in decoration, and so on."
The show likes to celebrate old-world craftsmanship while keeping an eye on modern technology's contributions to home improvement. It is not reluctant to use the latest and greatest materials it can find, from rubberized "slate" to decks fashioned from recycled plastic.
"This Old House" unfolds in "taped real time," meaning that it captures what happens as it happens, making it the "original reality television," except no one gets voted off the job site à la "Survivors." The regular cast of craftsmen and contractors are too likeable for that.
But do these guys really get along as well as they seem to on TV? Yes, says David Vos, the producer of a one-hour special on the making of "This Old House."
"More important than the civility of liking one another, they all love what they do," Mr. Vos says. "There's a deeper story here in that, almost to a man, they are loving what their fathers taught them to do."
Producing a winning home-improvement show requires finding a telegenic renovation project. Part of the challenge and secret to success is to find interesting homes, cooperative homeowners, and real projects in their formative stage.
"We try to find houses that were going to be worked on anyway; we don't want to be the precipitating influence," says producer Bruce Irving. "We want to be along for the ride, involved early enough in the process that all the decisions haven't been made because there's a lot of drama and interest in hashing out decisions."
Most seasons there are two projects. The first, filmed in Massachusetts, runs 18 episodes, and is followed by a project shot over the winter months in a mild climate. Although the first segment of the 2002-03 season won't air until October (check local listings), work is already under way on the new project. Taping usually takes place two days a week.
Outside, this particular old house doesn't appear to need work, but inside it is empty, awaiting major renovation throughout, including creating an office on the third floor for homeowner Kim Whittemore, a management consultant. She and her husband, Bruce Leasure, won't move in until the job is finished in December.
"We knew this was going to be more or less a full-time job for one of us, being on the site, overseeing what's going on," says Ms. Whittemore, who makes herself available. But even when the couple isn't at the house, they often keep track of what's happening there via four live "This Old House" webcams set up on site.
To ensure a good series, finding the right homeowners is important.
"They're very much a part of the drama, so we're looking for people who can work with us," Irving says. "We want people we think can handle the extra pressure of turning what's essentially a two-ring circus of contractor and homeowner into a three-ring circus of contractor, homeowner, and TV show."
The homeowners pay the major contractors and architects. Abram and plumbing and heating expert Richard Threthewey are on the show's payroll.
The taping follows the renovation work as it occurs, and so the broadcasts begin to air before projects are completed. Once the camera starts rolling, there's no turning back. But the genius of the show's method is that it's in everybody's best interest to push toward a common goal, producer Irving says.
Another key is simplicity. The whole show is shot by one hard-working cameraman. Viewers, in a sense, see things through his lens, as though they were there themselves.
About a year ago the crew decided it would be fun to have a bloopers show. Miscues were found, but not a sufficient number of truly funny ones.
"The contractors and subcontractors we work with are so skilled," Irving says, "there just wasn't enough funny stuff."
As a result, the project was scrapped, a decision that speaks volumes about how professional "This Old House" is at delivering well-packaged home improvement know-how.