I caught an episode of HGTV’s "Designer Superstar Challenge" last night. It’s a pretty hokey pseudo-reality show where a bunch of hopeful "designer host" candidates compete in hopes of landing a job hosting a show on HGTV. Sound like a premise for bad programming? You bet it does. You keep on thinking that the winner will wind up hosting the next challenge, and they’ll just keep on endlessly searching for a new host until they find one that’s good. It’s the perfection of cannibalistic programming, each new season consuming the previous winner.

What takes this from merely cheesy to "bad movie bad" — as in so bad it’s funny — is Home Depot’s sponsorship. More accurately, it’s the gymnastics the show goes through in an attempt to integrate Home Depot that took this episode from bad to laugh-out-loud awful.
Here’s a capsule of the "headboard" episode: in this "surprise design assignment" the five remaining designers have three hours and a $250 budget to build a creative, inspired headboard. They have to buy the materials and put a headboard together, and they’ll be judged on the results, with the worst performer eliminated.

Now if you were given this challenge, would you be heading out to drop all of your $250 at a Home Depot store? I seriously hope not. Sure, you might buy some basic materials there, but to take just one example, their selection of designer fabrics leaves a lot to be desired.

All of the candidates prove their ability to compromise any personal integrity they might have (an essential requirement for anyone in the "media personality" game, in my opinion) by failing to simply walk off the show and save some shred of dignity. Instead, they produce some truly pathetic attempts at headboards, ranging from a PVC tubing construction suitable for design students on crack, to an attempt at a "modular" system that was really more of a poorly executed workshop wall.

Then the poor judges had to try to make the best of this. At least none of them pretended that the results were satisfactory. Then again, none of them said "these are the sort of unacceptable results you would expect from buying all of your materials at Home Depot" either.

So aside from the obviously inadvertent laughing-stock humour factor, what did this show achieve?

  • It demonstrated that HGTV didn’t put this concept through as much scrutiny as it should have before going to production.
  • It proved that HGTV couldn’t find a decent design sponsor.
  • It demonstrated that someone has no clue as to what kind of money you need to spend in order to make good television… and that person works for HGTV. There’s probably a Dilbert-style pointy haired boss lurking in the wings who should be blamed for this mess.
  • It demonstrated that Home Depot is a lousy place to go for design / decorating. (Note to Home Depot: you’re in the construction / renovation business; design is a facet of this process but it’s not a core driver. Consider sticking to directly relevant programming).
  • It proved that if you take "designer/host" types and give them a construction project, you’ll get lousy results. They tend to be different skill sets. A corollary of this is that a whole bunch of potential Home Depot customers have been terrified by watching the contestant’s experience and won’t be starting a project any time soon.
  • It proved that the people at Home Depot didn’t invest enough energy in ensuring that their brand placement was going to benefit them.
  • It demonstrates a downside of integrating your brand with content: if the result is a real stinker, you can’t just pay the broadcaster to run public service ads during the show; your brand is irrevocably tied to the stench.
  • It shows that "reality" series stinkers are really problematic. There’s probably no way to cancel this turkey; there’s no way to go back and re-shoot episodes without getting different contestants eliminated (oh the lawsuits!). HGTV is pretty much stuck with this thing unless the aforementioned pointy-haired boss managed to swallow his or her ego mid-production and found a way to fix the remaining episodes.

The end result is a rare lose-lose-lose scenario. HGTV is stuck with a stinker show it can’t quietly cancel; Home Depot is tightly integrated with content that both makes it look bad and scares potential customers; and everyone involved in the show, including contestants, judges, producers, and executives would be better off if they could go back in time and steer clear of the whole project. On the other hand if the show keeps going this way, they might be able to get some syndication revenue from the Comedy Network!