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TV Note: TLC's 'Trading Spaces' plays out like soap opera

Wednesday, December 26, 2001

By Judith S. Gillies, The Washington Post

Suspense and inspiration are two main elements of TLC's "Trading Spaces," says host Paige Davis.

"If you see the rooms 'before,' you definitely want to see the 'after.' There's the suspense of how it's going to turn out -- and whether the neighbors will like what's been done in their own homes.

"Viewers also are drawn to it in terms of getting ideas -- the 'wow-I-could-really-do that-in-my-house' aspect," she said.

In "Trading Spaces," two sets of neighbors swap keys and then remake a room in one another's home.

In addition to design and light renovation tips, viewers are treated to the uncertainties, anxiety and surprise that goes with a redo in which the resident is not involved.

Each team has two days, a $1,000 budget, a professional designer and the shared help of a carpenter. But neighbors can't return to their own homes until the projects are finished.

"Trading Spaces" started a year ago on TLC as a daytime show and was so successful in attracting viewers that the cable network moved it to prime time this fall.

Forty episodes were taped last year, and 45 are slated for this year. The new episodes are introduced in the 8 p.m. Saturday slot and repeated at noon on Sunday, while previously aired programs are shown throughout the week. TLC said the program averages about 6 million viewers every week.

"This is not your regular hammer-and-nails show," said Steve Schwartz, "Trading Spaces" executive producer.

"On the regular shows, the nail always goes in straight. But on ours, if the nail goes in crooked, or in the wrong place, we show it. People make errors and have to figure things out."

The unpredictability creates "different kinds of jeopardy," Schwartz said.

"People are under a lot of pressure," Schwartz said. "Besides the time and money restraints, the designers have professional reputations on the line. All are perfectionists and want to make the rooms look great. Things get tense. What you see is real reaction to the stresses everyone is under. There's a lot of real, live soap opera -- sometimes we capture it -- and viewers catch on to that."

Designer Laurie Hickson-Smith of Jackson, Miss., said the most difficult factor is the time element. "We all can dream up the most amazing things, but we only have 48 hours -- and not even that."

Designer Hilda Santo-Tomas of Atlanta said: "The thousand dollars is the really hard part. I can do great things with a thousand-fifty ... and you always want that extra hour on Day Two."

Taping for the show begins on Day Zero, when the production trucks unload equipment and on-camera interviews are done.

On Day One the work begins, usually about 8 a.m. Neighbors express their views to the designer, see what plans the designer has, clear the room and begin working -- painting, pulling up carpeting, removing wallpaper and the like. Around 5 or 6 p.m., the designer assigns homework -- usually lots of painting -- for the team to finish overnight.

The projects are completed on Day Two, which typically runs from about 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Cameras catch the interaction between the designers and their teams -- which sometimes is enthusiastic, sometimes doubting. The host shuttles between the two sites and the carpenter work area, asking questions, checking progress and helping with odds and ends. She also carries a mini-cam (the "Alex cam" of last year's host Alex McLeod or this year's "Paige cam") to capture more private moments.

After announcing "time's up," the host talks with the designers and reviews major changes and challenges in each room. The program ends with the "reveal," when the teams are led, eyes closed, into their own homes to see what changes have been made.

"The neighbors are so vulnerable in those moments," said host Davis. "They have been anticipating a new room for a few months since they were signed on for the show. Then, they are exhausted from all the manual labor they have done in their friends' home, where they've invested so much. Throw in the shock and the TV lights shining in their eyes. ... They just are not ready to see their room look that different."

And the changes can be dramatic.

For example, there was the moss-covered wall in a bedroom designed by Genevieve Gorder of New York; a karaoke stage and canoe used in a recreation room by Frank Bielec of Katy, Texas.

Or the bedroom in Towson, Md., that was transformed into a Pullman car by Doug Wilson of New York. That episode premiered last night as part of the "Trading Spaces' Home for the Holidays" marathon.

"Right after the experience, I likened it to having a baby," said Keri Todd, who with her husband, Jerry, worked with Wilson on the room. "I wasn't ready to talk about it right away -- I had to get over the fatigue and emotional aspects."

She was worried most about how her friend Lindsey Hughes would react.

"We knew that Rob [Hughes], who is a train enthusiast, would really like the room, said Todd. "But we wanted to be sure that Lindsey would be all right with it. It's striking, but so different, and the thing that scared me was that if they hated it, it would take a lot of time and money to put it back."

The Hugheses had different reactions to the Pullman-car room, but Lindsey Hughes said they expect to keep it pretty much as is for at least several weeks after the episode airs so friends can continue stopping by to see it.

But even if a team changes a room after the crew leaves, said host Davis, "they never will see that room in the same way again. ... A lot of the show is about breaking out of a rut, taking a risk, taking a chance and doing something you wouldn't think of."

"Trading Spaces" is based on a British television hit "Changing Rooms." But, Schwartz said, "we wanted to make it an American show, so we have tried to take it all over the country, shooting in Florida, New Mexico, Texas, Illinois, Colorado and California as well as the East Coast. We've been to a lot of places, and will go to more."

Projects and their outcomes are as varied as the locales, Schwartz said. "This show lets you watch the process and gives you an understanding that not everything happens the way you want it to -- and out of great struggle, really beautiful things are created."

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