Long before HGTV was a twinkle in its mother's eye, one PBS member station lit the spark that became the flame of an entirely new genre of television. The idea came one winter day in Boston when producer Russell Morash drove by a construction site and noticed a group of people huddled around a plywood wall, straining their necks to see beyond the plexiglass window. If a crowd like that can be drawn to an excavation site on a cold, snowy day, he thought, I can make a compelling show about home construction.
Fifteen years earlier, Morash had introduced viewers to Julia Child with one of America's first cooking shows, The French Chef, based on her bestselling 1961 cookbook. In other words, he had experience parlaying "."
"He believed that an expert, not an actor or performer, who could share the wisdom and secrets of their passion would be of tremendous value to the audience," says Eric Thorkilsen, CEO of This Old House Ventures and former senior vice president of business development for Scripps Networks, the parent company of HGTV.
This Old House debuted on Boston's WGBH-TV on February 20, 1979. Its timing, at the start of a national energy crisis that would soon give way to a recession, made the program ripe for consumption. But the new concept didn't resonate with everybody. Some building professionals feared the show would give away too many tips and put them out of a job.
Morash's own father questioned putting carpenters and plumbers on TV. "I said, 'Dad, I'm not asking them to quote Shakespeare. I want them to tell me, in their own way, how to lay an oak floor, what tools to use, what goes on in their mind,'" Morash told Boston magazine in 2009.
After the show's first season broke ratings records, PBS snapped it up for national syndication. To date, This Old House has earned 18 Emmy Awards and 83 nominations, made celebrities out of its hosts, and spawned a and spin-off shows including Ask This Old House and . Its latest iteration, , a digital-only brand providing original content for first-time homeowners and renters, launches Feb. 1.
At 39 years old, the "" continues to reach and boasts a ratings number double that of its biggest competitor, Fixer Upper, according to Nielsen. Perhaps its most important contribution, however, was proving once and for all that Americans have a voracious appetite for home transformations—an act that paved the way for the Gaineses and the Scott brothers of the world.
Morash came up with the show's concept while , and the pilot episode featured the reveal of a renovated Victorian in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, which cost $30,000 to fix up. Workers were paid once the house sold, but the station never got its investment back—though, as Morash once said, they didn't care because "the show had taken off."
After reviewing the pilot, which never aired, network execs quickly realized two things: First, people wanted to see the renovation process (otherwise, what was the point?) and second, the host, Boston Globe journalist Estelle Bond Guralnick, wasn't as commanding on camera as the young builder who'd shown her around. "Russ [Morash] just felt awful," Guralnick told Boston. "He called me and said, 'They like Bob Vila.' I was very busy, and life went on."
Pictured: Vila with his son Chris playing PlayStation games in 2004.
"Do it yourself" hadn't entered the lexicon in those days, and some industry professionals worried their business would suffer if experts like plumber Richard Trethewey, builder Tom Silva, and landscaper Roger Cook (pictured above with current TOH host Kevin O'Connor, far left) told viewers exactly what they needed to know about home renovation. Thorkilsen says TOH actually had the opposite effect.
"You might think people watch the show then tear their house apart for a $300,000 renovation, but more often it's about gaining the confidence of knowing the right questions to ask," he says. "That initial knowledge puts homeowners on equal footing with the contractor."
When Morash approached Norm Abram, who'd built his barn, the carpenter "took the job for some work in a winter of no work," Abram told . "I thought I'd be in the background of a couple of scenes carrying around ladders." Not only was he in the foreground, but Morash's suggestion that he wear more plaid forever linked Abram with the print, even sparking "Norm look-alike" contests with dozens of plaid-adorned, spectacled participants. "Now I can't not put one on," he said.
Advertising on public television is tricky. As Dan Beliveau, homeowner from the 2000 season, explained, "I might say 'Toto toilets' or the brand name of the bamboo flooring. They'd say, "Cut, cut. Can you just not do that?" In early seasons, the cast and crew were directed to install any products with logos (rolls of fiberglass, for example) backwards with names facing away from the camera.
That changed when TOH moved to a format of having individual homeowners pay for their renovations. These days there are five official sponsors, and additional companies may donate or sell products at a discount in exchange for a "thank-you credit" at the end of the episode in which their product appeared.
The show and their original host eventually parted ways over the advertising restrictions. Vila was reprimanded for doing commercials for Rickel Home Centers, a competitor of The Home Depot, which was one of TOH's sponsors. Vila started the show at $200 an episode and after 10 years was making just $800 a pop. He left to pursue more lucrative projects. "I am at heart a capitalist," he told the Wall Street Journal. "The years I hosted on PBS I compare to the years I volunteered for the Peace Corps." He was replaced by Steve Thomas (1989-2003), who was followed by the current host, Kevin O'Connor.
Most notably by ABC's Home Improvement, which ran from 1991-1999 and featured a Vila-esque Tim Allen and his Abram-like assistant, played by Richard Karn, as the stars of the fictional TV series Tool Time. "The Disney people ed me before Home Improvement premiered," said Vila. "I think there was some concern in the legal department about whether I was being ripped off. The fact is, it's a sitcom based on me and Norm, you know?"
One of the most frequently asked questions host Kevin O'Connor gets is, "How do you pick your houses?" he recently told . "The vast majority of the homes that we work on are homes that are submitted to us via email or our website submission page," he added. "We get [3,000] to 5,000 of those submissions a month." Given that TOH renovates just two houses per season, the odds of being chosen are slim.
Most HGTV shows flip houses at warp speed compared to TOH, and Thorkilsen says his brand is just fine with that. "When we put a window in we'll spend 4-6 minutes going over the key points of installing a window, but on Fixer Upper the windows go in and before you know it Joanna is there figuring out which curtains should go around them," he says. "They're much more in the entertainment business. They're not trying to convey even an edited number of steps of what it takes to do the renovation.
They're just showing that they took a wreck, Chip and his team did a lot of heavy-duty lifting, and, miraculously, they got it to the point where Joanna could do her decorating and then the homeowners show up."
On TOH, the homeowners are involved in each step of the way and only after 15 episodes of hard work do viewers see the finished product. "We have an entirely different strategy but the proof of its validity is that we continue to draw the largest household audience in the entire genre by a wide margin."