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An Interview With the Guru of Shelter TV

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CHICAGO ( -- It all began with a deteriorating 1860 Victorian, and more than 40 projects later, Bob Vila is marking 25 years
Bob Vila, architect, journalist and shelter broadcast guru, is wary of product placements.

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Mr. Vila, who holds degrees in architecture and journalism, first appeared on national TV when This Old House debuted on the Public Broadcasting Service in 1979. He left PBS a decade later and went into syndicated TV with Bob Vila's Home Again. Viacom's King World Productions syndicates the show to more than 200 TV stations. He's also been a spokesman for Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s Craftsman tools for 15 years.

Mr. Vila, 57, estimates there are some 30 shelter-related shows on TV today. He talked to Advertising Age's Dan Lippe about the explosive growth of shelter TV, which at this point ranges from complex renovations -- Mr. Vila's specialty -- to having neighbors remodel a room a la TLC's Trading Spaces.

ADVERTISING AGE: Integrated product placement-type advertising seems to be a natural fit for shelter TV. How do you approach that ad tactic?
MR. VILA: I've always felt very strongly that it was bad karma to tell a carpenter what tools to use. ... In the years that I've been producing my own show, I've really looked at it from a journalistic perspective. The approach I've always taken, whether it's a window or a brand of carpet, is is there a reason why it's interesting enough to have it on the show and talk about it.

'Murky area'
My favorite part of it all is when you look at the technology of housing in the last decade. ... These are things that need to be reported on and used. But now we're entering a point where you have placement as a profit center. It turns into kind of a murky area of whether something's going to appear because it's worth reporting on it or because somebody paid to put it on your show.

If you're reporting, you can still put a brand on there and give an impartial judgment of it. Yet the advertising value of the adjacency to the Bob Vila name is something I have to be very guarded about.

[With Bob Vila's Home Again] you will find there exists a relationship beyond the TV show with some of these brands on the [] Web site. However, it's become kind of perfectly acceptable for television companies producing shows to charge people for placement. I'm in a quandary because I have a certain amount of integrity to protect in terms of being an impartial, unbiased expert on XYZ components of housing construction.

'Straight story'
I've got 25 years of being somebody my viewers can depend on to give them a straight story about something, and if I took that approach with anything, then I'd be giving something up that I don't want to give up.

AA: You pretty much started the genre of shelter TV with This Old House. Twenty-five years later, there's a wide variety of home-themed TV shows. Why have such shows become so popular?
MR. VILA: There's an endless curiosity and concern with housing -- you know, food, sex, housing. The fact is that people care passionately about their surroundings, how they work, what they look like and whether they keep them warm.

And then other bright people with bright ideas have discovered how to take that concern and turn it into more than just a learning experience but an entertaining experience by kind of grafting on elements of soap opera and quiz shows. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but they're watching [these shows], aren't they?

Every year when you're cobbling together ideas for next season's programming, you're saying to yourself, "Should I change my course? What can I do to kind of compete with these other shows?" And so far I just have not addressed that. I just basically keep on doing what I've always been doing, which is building and remodeling.

'Getting ratings'
AA: What consistent thread runs through all the shelter shows?
MR. VILA: It's mostly a concern for entertaining and getting ratings. And there's nothing wrong with that. And what's right about it is that it continues to inspire people to look at their surroundings in a different way regardless of which show we're talking about. All of them continue to inspire people to want to improve their surroundings, to want to better the curb appeal of their house as well as the general appeal and function of their interiors.

AA: What's hot in home amenities?
MR. VILA: There is no doubt that people are more and more interested in expansive spaces that combine the kitchen with the living room functions. There isn't a builder/developer worth his salt who wouldn't tell you that's one of the key things I have to put into my offerings, from California back to the East Coast.

I'm hoping we're getting away from the supercompetitive need to have the McMansion with the three-car garage, all this insanity. I think it's going to come back to haunt a lot of people 10 years out. And God knows when the point comes that the yuppies who have bought such a McMansion in the 1990s are becoming empty nesters. ... I'm not sure how many people are going to be standing in line to be the second owners of such houses.

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