FEELING THE LOVE
Toronto-made series spawns versions in U.K., Australia, France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Norway
There is a perennial scene in reality home makeover show Love It or List It that should be trademarked: It’s when designer Hilary Farr throws a fit after being unable to balance the demands of the homeowner and a dwindling budget.
I never promised you a rose garden, the brittle Farr seems to lecture the aggrieved homeowners. But of course, at the beginning of the show, she did. Before she discovers the usual culprits of structural issues, asbestos, leaky pipes or termites that have made the budget unmanageable.
The homeowners then go into a meltdown and much conflict ensues. The clash of wills is central to the narrative of the show. One partner wants to stay and renovate their home. The other wants to go. Farr is the exasperated referee. And it has made the Canadian show arguably the most successful franchised export yet.
In terms of balance of trade, Canadian television is in a major deficit. It does a woeful job of exporting homemade television to the outside world while we import many of our most watched shows.
The top series on Canadian TV last year was an American franchise, The Amazing Race Canada. That was followed by The Big Bang Theory and Survivor. Shows based on international franchises such as Big Brother Canada also continue to do well here.
For networks, it’s cheaper to rent an NCIS procedural than to spend millions producing their own.
But you have to give credit where it’s due. The under-the-radar, Toronto-produced Love It or List It is that one rare show that has bucked the trend, producing two other spinoffs and, now, an upcoming bushel of global franchises.
While Canadian TV has had its share of export successes such as CTV’s Flashpoint and Space’s Orphan Black, few of them have been “franchised” shows. That’s where the producer sells the format to another country to make their own version. Creating that intellectual property for export means licensing fees for Canadian producers: money which flows back into the country.
The latest is Love It or List It Vacation Homes, which debuted in May, joining the first spinoff, Love it or List it Vancouver.
But producers have been on a global march, inking deals internationally. Besides Kirstie and Phil’s Love It or List It, which debuted in 2015 in the U.K., there are eight more internationally licensed shows in the pipeline. That includes: Love It or List It Australia, France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Norway.
Not bad for a concept developed in Toronto, making the show one of the most successful franchises in Canadian history.
The new entrants join the original Love It or List It, which already plays in 150 territories globally. Staffing for the current three shows can be over 200, the majority in Canada.
“People can relate to it, because not one homeowner out there has not sat down and had this question on their minds. Should I renovate my house, or move out and buy something else?” said Maria Armstrong of Big Coat Media, who developed the original concept.
The show got a boost in 2012 when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the New York Times it was her favourite show and she found it “very calming.”
Now that Clinton has her sights set on the White House, maybe a redesign is in order by Farr. Unless realtor David Visentin can find a house that’s nicer than the White House. Which might be a stretch.
Like most good ideas, the pitch came from real life. Armstrong was looking to renovate her Riverdale home to accommodate her growing twin boys.
“It was a small garden and no parking, two very small bathrooms; I really didn’t have enough room,” said Armstrong.
The producer, along with partner Catherine Fogarty, pitched the show as a kind of Hail Mary pass when their other ideas seemed to fall flat during a meeting with TV executives. Armstrong originally called her concept “Should I Stay or Should I Go” based on the hit song by the Clash. But some thought the title was too long.
The show was bought by the W Network in 2008 and is in its sixth season. And given Canada’s unrelentingly hot housing market — by some estimates the most overpriced on the planet — it makes sense that real estate TV has become one of our strengths. Other stars from the Canadian real estate factory include Mike Holmes, Property Brothers Jonathan and Drew Scott, and Bryan Baeumler of House of Bryan.
“We don’t know of any other Canadian shows that have been formatted like this,” says Fogarty. “That’s why we’re so proud of it. As Canadians, we’re typically low profile and we don’t toot our horns as much.”
Perhaps the No. 1 question that Fogarty gets is whether the conflict is manufactured. Do homeowners really get that angry at Farr and Visentin?
Fogarty claims none of the show is fiction.
“Trust me, when you’re renovating someone’s place it’s stressful and tensions can flare,” she says.
The cost of the materials is borne by the homeowners, but Farr and her team donate their time and labour, which can be substantial. Producers also have a pipeline of suppliers where they get favourable pricing.
Still, not everything has gone perfectly. Producers were sued by a North Carolina couple who allege that their renovation was botched. The suit also alleges that the show is really a “dramatization” with Farr and Visentin playing prescribed roles. The allegations have been denied by Big Coat.
Still, the durability of the franchise means that the spinoffs seem endless. Fogarty says she would love to do a Love It or List It condo version next given the increasing popularity of the housing over the last decade.
Meanwhile, Love it or List it Vacation Homes looks at the decisionmaking process between renovating that old cottage or buying a new one.
That’s something that Armstrong also had to wrestle with.
“I had to decide whether to get rid of the cabin in Collingwood or expand it,” said Armstrong. “So I could definitely relate.”
What’s not so relatable is the speed of the renovation, which some viewers, who may have had to renovate themselves, might be rightly skeptical of. But because of the expensive production process (crews may be shooting three or four projects simultaneously), the renovation has to wrap up in six to eight weeks.
Several years ago Fogarty bought a home in Riverdale and decided to renovate.
“The funny thing is, I’m the producer of Love It or List It and it was still shocking to me how real life is different,” laughs Fogarty. “I found out it’s not quite like TV. It took me 18 months of renovations, which I find very ironic. I just wanted to press the fast forward button.”
Hillary Farr and David Visentin, hosts of Love It or List It.