Building "Ellen's Design Challenge"
As talk about over-saturation pervades unscripted television circles, producers of reality competition formats have managed to discover an unexploited new niche: furniture design.
Airing on HGTV on Monday nights at 9 p.m., Ellen’s Design Challenge (six x one-hour, pictured) features comedian Ellen DeGeneres and tasks six contestants to sketch, design and build creative furniture pieces in a 48-hour time period.
Each week, one contestant is voted off by a judging panel of industry experts and the winner receives US$100,000 cash and a feature in HGTV Magazine.
The series is one of two reality competitions about furniture design that began airing in the U.S. this year. The other is Framework, which was hosted by the rapper Common and premiered on NBCUniversal-owned channel Spike on January 6.
Ellen’s Design Challenge does not attempt to reinvent the reality competition format. Instead, producers are hoping viewers will be drawn to a competition inspired by its namesake celebrity’s fun-loving brand values. So far, the strategy is working.
“Our viewers are watching the show not just because they want to watch the drama that it takes to win,” explains the Scripps Interactive-owned net’s president, Kathleen Finch. “Our viewers really care about the finished product.”
The idea for the series came from DeGeneres, best known as host of the ABC daytime talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Producers from her shingle, A Very Good Production, reached out to Finch, who flew to Los Angeles to take a pitch meeting in DeGeneres’ office.
The concept came from the star’s hobby of buying, renovating, furnishing and flipping homes but in particular her interest in furniture, which has been documented in the tabloid press via photos of DeGeneres and wife Portia de Rossi out on shopping excursions.
Before the conversation began, Finch was already impressed by DeGeneres’ “beautifully designed” work space and dressing room.
“When she pitched me the idea, within two seconds all I could think of was when could we start shooting it,” says Finch. “Clearly she knew what she was talking about. She started rattling off names of judges that she wanted and which design schools we should pull contestants from.”
Moreover, HGTV’s in-house audience research highlighted crossover between the network’s audience of upscale, home-owning women and fans of DeGeneres’ daytime audience on ABC. The network has also partnered with The Ellen DeGeneres Show in the past.
In 2012, the comedian teamed up with HGTV personalities Anthony Carrino and John Colaneri of Kitchen Cousins to rebuild a home for a New Jersey couple whose home was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy. “That altruistic spirit and that sense of fun are two things that resonate with her audience and with our audience,” says Finch.
Indeed, the show has a focus on rewarding and celebrating the contestants’ skills. DeGeneres’ penchant for pulling pranks on (and with) celebrities is more bluntly felt in the show’s challenges. In the premiere episode, she appears via pre-recorded video to present the contestants with giant gift boxes, which turn out to be empty. Instead, the designers must use the materials that make up the boxes to create original pieces.
Since DeGeneres is not a regular presence on the show, her enthusiasm has to come across when she is absent. She appears in a few episodes via video and was on set for episode three and the finale. The show’s host, Jay Montepare, frequently points out that DeGeneres “hand-picked” the contestants and judges.
Producers insist her involvement in the casting and development process ensured that her values were felt on the air despite her physical absence from the set. “Her whole mantra is love what you’re doing, be good at what you’re doing and it will resonate with the audience,” says Finch.
“These are really complicated shows to do,” she adds. “Every project must look fabulous but the contestants also have to do them under really stressful, unnatural circumstances. In the real world, an artist is not given 48 hours to make a masterpiece but yet that’s what we do on this show and the end result has to be A-plus.”
To add the reality razzle dazzle and work out the logistics, A. Smith & Co. Productions (Hell’s Kitchen) partnered with DeGeneres and Jeff Kleeman of A Very Good Productions and Warner Bros. Television’s syndication arm Telepictures (which also produces The Ellen DeGeneres Show) to develop and produce the series.
Casting designers who could create beautiful furniture under stress was the most important step. The designers not only had to be of a certain standard but likeable and compelling as people and those traits also had to reflect in their approach to design.
The contestants include Brooklyn designer Katie Stout, cowboy hat-wearing self-taught designer Tim McClellan, North Carolina-based blacksmith Carley Eisenberg and Los Angeles interior designer Leslie Shapiro Joyal.
“We wanted to represent different types of designers. As the show goes on you are able to tell whose piece is whose because you are seeing their styles developing,” says Arthur Smith, founder of A. Smith & Co. “Especially today, viewers want competitions that are legitimate and fair. You have to really feel the person who is winning is worthy.”
“There were two strands that went into the development of the show,” he continues. “The logistics side and then there was the showmanship.”
In terms of showmanship, producers came up with a lazy Susan-type turntable that spins around to reveal the contestant’s final design. Additionally, the criteria for the carpenters that each designer is paired with were less rigorous than the designers: they had to be not only skilled, but good-looking enough to provide viewers with some eye candy.
Pre-production involved consulting with furniture designers, collectors and experts on the kinds of challenges that would best showcase a designer’s chops. They recruited judges Amanda Dameron, editor-in-chief of Dwell magazine; Christiane Lemieux, executive creative director at e-commerce site Wayfair.com; and weekly guest judges to size up contestants’ creations based on use of the materials, practicality and the designer’s personal style.
As is needed with any competition format, there are a couple twists.
Since the judges give comments upon seeing the finished pieces, DeGeneres suggested cutting their private deliberations from the TV broadcast and posting that segment online as a deeper dive into the process for the online audience.
The finale also caused Finch a sleepless night. “A big surprise happened at the finale that had us all scrambling,” she said. “It’s not the kind of thing you wish will happen but nothing like it has happened on any competition show on HGTV so I am excited about that.”
The January 26 premiere attracted 3.9 million total viewers and garnered a .72 rating among viewers in the 25-54 demo. More than 7.9 million viewers have tuned in since the show began airing, according to the network. The show is also simultaneously airing on HGTV in Canada.
Finch says social engagement is “phenomenal” thanks in large part to DeGeneres’ online reach, which includes 40 million Twitter followers.