Back to these old houses

Time travel lures millions to living history

By Dan Odenwald

“As educational as magnetic,” says Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg. “Intimate, eye-opening and completely fascinating,” raves Salon’s Joyce Millman. “Brilliantly disguised as just another reality show . . .  the very best TV show of 2002,” gushes Aaron Barnhart of the Kansas City Star.

TV critics seem reluctant to hold back praise for 1900 House, Frontier House and 1940s House, the “living history” series brought to PBS by WNET’s Beth Hoppe and the British production company Wall to Wall Television.

Since 1900 House debuted in June 2000, viewers, too, have marveled at how ordinary families face life without the technological and social conveniences of the 21st century. They’ve been captivated by the back-breaking rigors of daily living in Victorian England, 1880s Montana and wartime London.

The series’ universal appeal has made them hits-with each new offering easily beating the PBS primetime average rating-and in the case of Emmy-nominated Frontier House, nearly tripling it.

The Montana homesteading story, which aired in May 2002, garnered the highest ratings for a limited series on PBS since 1997, earning a 5.4 rating, compared with a primetime season average of 1.7. In Philadelphia, the final hour won a 7 rating-besting five commercial networks in the market.

The network is hoping for similar success with Manor House, which airs April 28-30 [2003]. The six-hour program, stripped across three nights during May sweeps, features a modern London family lording over 12 volunteer servants in a grand English country house. PBS is hyping the show and has selected it as a PBS Program Club pick.

The success of the first Wall to Wall import, 1900 House, surprised everyone. The show was only modestly re-edited for American viewers and ran in early summer when fewer people watch TV, but it scored a 3.4 rating compared with the season average of 2.0. The buzz it generated excited PBS execs even more.

Rosenberg called it “a smart, charmingly droll nonfiction series . . . great fun and educational, a rare TV combination.” Millman said it was “classy voyeurism . . .  [owing] less to Survivor than it does to that seminal PBS reality series American Family.” The show later won a Peabody Award.

Realizing it had a hit on its hands, public TV quickly contracted with Wall to Wall to produce Frontier House, the American follow-up, and later acquired 1940s House and the forthcoming Manor House. WNET also hopes to purchase Regency House, a quasi-re-creation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in which 21st century twentysomethings participate in the courtship rituals of summer house parties in the Britain of 200 years ago.

Meanwhile, WNET and Wall to Wall are producing a second American production, Colonial House, for broadcast in May 2004 in which 20 colonials will adopt the lifestyle of New Englanders circa 1628.

The project is funded through an unprecedented deal between PBS and WNET that has PBS fronting the bulk of the show’s $5 million price tag with the promise that WNET reimburse the network once the station finds corporate underwriters.

Ordinarily, the network puts up only 20 to 40 percent of a program’s budget, leaving producers to raise the rest. But the potential success of Colonial House and PBS’s desire to get it to air quickly compelled the network to open its wallet, Hoppe says.

“Who cares if they have accents?”

Alex Graham, managing director of Wall to Wall, never intended for 1900 House-the one that started it all-to end up on PBS. He tried to sell the show to American cable networks but found little interest.

Hoppe in a control room at WNETWhen he pitched 1900 House to WNET, Hoppe was also skeptical. She had just moved from WGBH to oversee science programming at WNET and didn’t want to become known for only importing British material, she says, sitting in her office with House posters smiling down on her.

But when Hoppe went to London to see the set and early footage of the Bowler family, she was overwhelmed. “I thought, who cares if they have accents? This will translate,” she says.

Inspired by a BBC production called Surviving the Iron Age, the series was conceived as a history of everyday tools, but the appeal of the Bowler family shifted the focus of 1900 House from quaint Victorian gadgetry to a broader picture of Victorian living.

Movies and history books focus on big names and events, Hoppe says, but “they don’t address what daily life was like for the average person.” Observing the Bowlers in unedited tapes, she had a “total gut feeling” that people would want to watch.

“If it hadn’t been for Beth . . . this show might well have ended up on Discovery or A&E,” Graham says. “She was the one who got it.”

Eventually the audience got it, too, says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. He says the House series created fans by masking history as soap opera.

Avoiding the staid storytelling of many PBS historical documentaries, the series turns viewers into voyeurs, he says. “It’s like overhearing a conversation on the subway or looking through someone’s medicine cabinet at a party,” he says.

But the true genius behind the House series is that it capitalizes on reality TV-with its wide audience appeal-while sticking to PBS’s core values, says Barnhart of the Kansas City Star.

Appreciative viewers responded. More than 27 million people watched some part of Frontier House, and approximately 16 million tuned into 1900 House. Even the less popular 1940s House netted more than 7 million viewers and scored a 2.0 rating compared to a season average of 1.8.

Many of these viewers are new to public TV, says Chad Davis, director of TV programming for WETA in Washington, D.C. When the average primetime ratings nearly triple-as they did for Frontier House-public TV is building a new audience, he says.

With Frontier House, PBS saw a 567 percent jump in female viewers 18-34 and a 500 percent jump in males in the same age bracket, the coveted demographic of commercial advertisers, according to the network.

The success started overseas. 1900 House was the highest-rated program on Britain’s Channel 4 in 1999 and Manor House ranked among the top 10 last year.

All of the Houses except the first aired during sweeps and survived the stiff competition. “We can’t duck and run during sweeps,” Hoppe says.

Though she originally wanted PBS to strip Frontier House across five nights, the network scheduled the series in two-hour stacks Monday through Wednesday. “I thought it was too much, and no one would watch it all,” she says. “I was wrong.”

The House series demonstrates how PBS can reinvent itself without repelling the core audience, says John Wilson, co-chief programming exec. “What makes these shows so popular is that viewers see themselves in them,” he says.

Survivors need not apply

Among followers of the House series are growing numbers who aspire to be public TV stars. About 400 families applied to live in the 1900 House, a modest figure compared to the 5,000 applications received for Frontier and Colonial and 8,000 for Regency House.

Everything depends on the participant selection, Hoppe says. The key is to find the right mix of people who share a genuine interest in history, as opposed to those looking for 15 minutes of fame, she says.

The people who apply to be on Survivor and Big Brother wouldn’t last five minutes in the Frontier or Colonial Houses, Graham says. “These are tough physical assignments-you have to be mentally strong and have a strong commitment to history,” he adds.

Producers also turn down historical re-enactors because they’re too cozy with period details, Hoppe says. They look for modern-day types who look like everyday 21st-century people.

Applicants go through screen tests and are interviewed by phone and in person. Hoppe and Graham search for strong characters who come across well on TV. They don’t set out to choose characters who might clash, but conflicts do occur naturally, Hoppe says. Though both Gordon Clune and Karen Glenn of Frontier House are strong people with fiercely held opinions, Hoppe says, she didn’t expect the friction that developed between them.

“At the same time, we’re in the business of making entertaining and accessible TV,” Graham says. The sparky relationship between Clune and Glenn “helped drive the drama of the series,” he adds.

While interpersonal conflicts permeate the House series, so too do personal discoveries. In each of the four programs, participants comment on the strength they’ve developed to handle ordeals of time travel.

After watching her children design puppet shows from scratch and take up turn-of-the-century photography, 1900 House‘s Joyce Bowler exclaims, “We didn’t realize our children were this confident or this resourceful . . . I’m seeing them in a completely different light.”

In 1940s House, a 29-year-old divorced mother of two discovers untapped abilities when she goes to work in a factory, as many women did during World War II. Confronted with wartime food rationing, Lyn Hymers refuses to resume her wasteful 21st century habits upon returning to modern life and halves her food budget.

Hall boy Kenny and scullery maid Ellen found romance in Manor House.

Even the Clunes of Frontier House, who had a Malibu mansion built during their sojourn in Montana, remark on the isolation they felt after returning home to California. The Clune kids complain that shopping malls and video games seem boring after frontier life.

But these realizations don’t make the experiences less grueling. Manor House lacked the most rudimentary conveniences taken for granted today, says Hugh Edgar, the butler. “Every task you did required stamina and endurance because everything was done manually,” he says.

The 12 servants who staffed the Manor House worked 17-hour days to feed, clothe and clean up after the Olliff-Cooper family upstairs. “It didn’t matter if we were tired . . . that’s what we signed up for,” Edgar says.

Manor House was especially tough for hall boy Kenny Skelton, the lowest-ranking male servant. He was allowed one bath a week and slept in the hallway. “When you’re working in the Edwardian house, time goes slower because you’re constantly thinking about life on the other side,” he says.

In the meantime, he struck up a romance with Ellen, the scullery maid. “We were both the lowest of the low, and we defended and comforted each other,” he says. The two moved in together after the show wrapped.

“Crying out for shampoo and a Hershey bar”

Most reality TV is “intrinsically idiotic,” argues Thompson of the Center for the Study of Popular Television. But PBS sets a far higher standard for its version. “It shows us the potential for the masterpiece of this form,” he says.

Viewers nevertheless would be naive to think the House programs give them completely authentic views of history. “You can’t replicate the past,” Thompson says. “You can replicate the surfaces of the past-what things looked like and what materials were made of.” Beyond that, it’s speculation, he argues.

Hoppe agrees. The House programs don’t claim to portray life exactly as it was lived. Instead they reveal how 21st-century people adapt to historical conditions, she says.

The educational value resides in recreating the houses and filling them with the appliances, food and clothing our ancestors would have used, Hoppe says. Then the “reality” happens.

History producers are “always looking for a mechanism to connect . . . the audience to a piece of history,” Graham says. “What’s extraordinary about this format is that it does that effortlessly by putting modern people into historical times-and that’s the joy of it.”

Some viewers would rather keep certain details at a distance. Hoppe says they criticized Frontier House for filming the slaying of the Glenn family’s beloved pig. She defends the slaughter, which saddened one of the family’s children, noting that the Glenn parents wanted to show their kids where food came from on the frontier. “We didn’t kill a pig to shock a kid and put it on TV. It’s more about the integrity of the project,” she says.

Trust between the viewer and producer is paramount, Hoppe says. For these shows to work, the audience has to believe that when the cameras are off, the participants don’t dash to air-conditioned trailers to have a beer and put their feet up, Hoppe says.

Yet the health and safety of the participants did require producers to compromise. In Frontier House, for example, health experts barred the families from drinking unfiltered water from a nearby creek as real homesteaders would have done, say Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, historical consultants for the show. Though safety consultants let producers use water filters from the era, most Montana homesteaders probably wouldn’t have had them.

Frontier House also used professional horse drivers to lead the wagon train westward, though that precaution didn’t prevent a spooked horse from nearly trampling one of the children. The accident led producers to employ more health and safety consultants for Colonial House.

While the producers push for historical authenticity, participants occasionally sneak modern comforts. Joyce Bowler smuggled shampoo into the 1900 House. The Clune family traded baked goods for contraband meat and a glimpse of their neighbor’s TV. And Sir John Olliff-Cooper demanded his chef prepare healthier cuisine than would have been served in a traditional Manor House.

Hoppe was outraged by the Clunes’ cheating. “I felt absolutely like they betrayed us, and they weren’t playing by the rules,” she says. She vowed to boot them from the show, but colleagues changed her mind.

Some cheating was expected, Graham says. “If people never broke the rules and cried out for shampoo or a Hershey bar, they would be very boring shows,” he says.

But to protect the compact with viewers, Hoppe required that Frontier House include the cheating scenes and Gordon Clune’s explanation for breaking with 1883 life.

Playing both sides of the ocean

House production costs are rising. While 1900 House was made for $1.5 million, the upcoming Regency and Colonial projects-with growing hours, participants and sets-are projected to cost $5 million apiece.

For Colonial House, produced in the United States, PBS and WNET are putting up 70 percent of the cost and the British will cover the rest. For Regency House, taped in Britain, the arrangement was reversed: the British co-producers paid 70 percent.

PBS had little luck attracting foundation and underwriting support for Frontier House. The Sloan Foundation, Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods and Georgia-Pacific offered some help, but not much, Wilson says. PBS is hoping Colonial House will lure more sponsorship, especially since it’s counting on WNET to reimburse PBS’s upfront costs.

PBS is reluctant to pursue an American project without the promise of British financial backing, Wilson says. Any proposal must play well on both sides of the Atlantic so costs can be shared.

That means some House ideas will never open their doors, Wilson says. PBS suggested recreating an American cattle drive, but the Brits rejected it. Channel 4 executives recently expressed doubts that Colonial House will play well in the U.K., but Hoppe notes that Frontier House performed well for Channel 4. Perhaps Channel 4 is angling to acquire the show at a cheaper price, Hoppe suggests.

Some ideas would surely fail, however. PBS is unlikely to explore the antebellum South because an honest depiction of slavery would offend viewers, Hoppe says. “We can’t recreate those horrors. We wouldn’t want to,” she says.

WNET also took no role in 1940s House, which Wall to Wall sold directly to PBS. Compared to Frontier House, it bombed. Some public TV programmers panned the show because, despite faux air raids, it failed to evoke the destruction of wartime London. PBS broadcast the three-hour program on a single night and gave it little promotion.

Even with shows that have strong transatlantic appeal, producers must bridge cultural gaps, Hoppe says. PBS renamed Edwardian Country House so that Americans wouldn’t wonder who Edward was. Hoppe also re-edited Manor House to play up its French chef and cut less interesting servants. She dropped a second narrator who lectured on rules of the Edwardian household, though she beefed up voiceover comments on history and the British class system.

The British also tweaked their imports, getting to the Frontier House wagon train more quickly by cutting scenes of participants learning skills for life in Montana.

Descent into hell

“In this primetime era of Survivor-mania, it’s tempting to stamp ‘clone’ on shows that are even vaguely similar to that glossy prototype,” says Howard Rosenberg of the L.A. Times in his review of Frontier House. “Not so, however, with this new PBS three-parter. . . . Unlike the big-bucks competition on greedy, cutthroat Survivor and its copies, the only payoff here is the experience. You know, just doing it.”

No one can compare the House series with the “reality TV” offered on the commercial networks, Hoppe says. The only similarity is that both remove people from everyday life and put them in strange, new situations.

Public TV’s reality shows are the only ones “with something to offer,” she says. “We’re exploring history. No one else is doing that.”

Rejecting assertions that he jumped on the reality bandwagon, Graham says, “We weren’t following anybody.” Wall to Wall began filming 1900 House in 1999, months before Survivor debuted and Big Brother‘s European prototype aired on Dutch TV.

Hoppe detests reality TV produced by the commercial nets. “I saw Survivor once and tried to watch Fear Factor and was appalled,” she says. The ads for Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People made her queasy.

Most reality TV could be called “humiliation TV,” says TV critic Barnhart. “It’s describing the people, it’s describing the banana peel and it’s showing the people slip on the peel,” he says.

Michael Wolff, media critic for New York magazine, calls the evolution of reality TV a descent into hell. “It was almost as though network television were being maintained on a sophisticated combination of mood-stabilizing drugs, but suddenly, everybody went on some scary street shit,” Wolff writes. “The model now is to keep pushing the bounds of credulousness-to stay out in front of the incredible.”

Barnhart says PBS refuses to debase its reality participants. The House projects don’t pit families against one another and don’t take food from one sorry lot to feed the others, he says.

The House series, and especially Frontier House, remind viewers of what’s best about America’s can-do spirit, Barnhart says. The experiences are so life-transforming that one Frontier House participant, Mark Glenn, ended his marriage and quit his job to return to Montana, he adds.

Unlike other reality shows, Frontier House can be watched again and again, Barnhart says. He and his wife have watched the series three times.

Hoppe and her British partners are banking on that kind of loyalty as they bring even more living history projects to public TV. The genre can’t sustain itself forever, Hoppe says, but viewers will always make room for interesting projects.

Immediately following Manor House, PBS will air the Hoppe-produced Warrior Challenge, featuring modern-day Marines, policemen and professional athletes training as historical warriors. The participants don battle garb of Romans, Vikings, knights and gladiators to compete at the end of each episode.

Hoppe also hopes to add new titles to the House franchise. She’s contemplating shows on the California Gold Rush and the settlement of Alaska and the Southwest. Other producers are following suit. In a proposed Mayflower project, Nova producers plan to cast volunteers as seamen on a replica of the 17th-century ship.

Reflecting back on her House successes, Hoppe wouldn’t change a thing. “Frontier House was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, though it was hard, hard, hard work,” she says. “It was just the greatest television experience I every had.”

EARLIER STORIES

How 1900 House came about

Current previews Frontier House

RELATED LINKS

PBS websites:
1900 House
Frontier House
Manor House
Colonial House

The Guardian comments on Manor House

Channel 4 sites:
Frontier House
Manor House

BBC story about Manor House

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