30 January 2015

Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Craacck. There is nothing like the sound of splintering wood to make you jump up out of your chair. For Rahil Taj, a contestant on the Spike TV show Framework, the jolt was especially intense. When one of the show’s judges sat on the rocking chair he’d scrambled to make in 24 hours, “it f---ing broke,” as Taj put it. “That’s the worst thing that can happen.” Somehow, he wasn’t eliminated: Another competitor built a very boring stool.

Framework, airing on Tuesdays at 10 p.m., is one of two new shows seeking to dramatize the making of furniture. The other, backed and hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, is Ellen’s Design Challenge, playing Mondays at 9 p.m. on HGTV. Together, they represent the latest evolution of the you-make-it-we-watch-it lifestyle competition show, a genre that’s proliferated in the decade since Project Runway and Top Chef turned the making of dresses and meals into popular entertainment. It’s somewhat amazing that, Bob Vila aside, trendy furniture builders have gone untelevised this long.

The shows’ networks are hoping to woo the same young audience that undertakes BuzzFeed DIY projects and posts heritage farm tables to their Pinterest pages. “I think that people are really valuing the homemade, and Etsy is such a big deal,” says HGTV President Kathleen Finch, referring to the online marketplace that analysts predict will have one of the most successful initial public offerings this year. HGTV is “the most viewed cable network among upscale women,” Finch adds. “Upscale women are very house proud.”

“Upscale women are very house proud”

Advertisers love upscale women, too. And even the traditionally masculine Spike has caught on: “Over the last couple of years, we’ve made a successful effort to serve a more gender-balanced audience,” says Sharon Levy, the network’s executive vice president for original series. “With Framework we’ve created a show that’s appealing to all adults 18 to 49.” For its Jan. 6 premiere, a modest 2.6 million people tuned in, according to Nielsen. The first airing of EDC, which was on Jan. 26, got 1.8 million.

Both shows follow reality TV’s standard competition format: Contestants must craft something, under the duress of deadlines and restricted materials, and then the worst object sends its maker home. But while Framework is a blur of trash talking, expletives, and backstabbing, EDC feels competitive the way three-legged races are competitive. The contestants on the HGTV show get the support of a carpenter and multiple days to make a dining room table that matches some chairs. On Spike, they get just 24 hours and work alone building something out of tennis balls, CDs, or lunchboxes. Ellen’s designers, hand-chosen by the TV magnate herself, help each other out in a pinch. They hug too frequently for people who work with blowtorches.

Framework’s clearly the one to watch. Furniture often shatters or comes apart, and judges ridicule finished pieces. The quicker pace means that creations are highly variable and often ugly but always inventive. Its host, the rapper Common, doesn’t know anything about craftsmanship, but he has great presence and makes an excellent “consumer expert.” (He sits in chairs to see how they feel.) The other judges—Brandon Gore, a well-known industrial artist, and designer Nolen Niu—raise issues a viewer might never think about, like the proper weight balance for a rocker.

As with most other shows where stuff is made, this vaguely educational component is Framework’s real draw. You may be happy knowing the proper height of a table the next time you need to buy one. And if you’ve never built something, it’s fun to see very complicated tools at work. In theory, you could figure out how to design this stuff yourself—just as, theoretically, you could cook the dishes you see on Top Chef. But don’t get your hopes up—there’s a lot of metallurgy.

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