Television

New reality show mixes home makeovers, family

Gail Pennington
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

Putting a real family on TV has pitfalls. Sure, the result can be a hit like "Jon & Kate Plus Eight," but the whole thing can also blow up in a network's face.

Jon and Kate Gosselin's marriage dissolved bitterly, although, on the bright side, TLC managed to turn the strife into a much-watched special.

The Teutul family of TLC's "American Chopper" — a show that was supposed to be about building motorcycles but actually revolved around the shouting matches of Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. — wound up in court after an acrimonious split.

Even if a family doesn't feud, reality can intrude on "reality TV." Before boat captain Phil Harris of Discovery's "Deadliest Catch" died in February after a stroke, film crews were at his hospital bed.

All this is very much in the tradition of PBS' "An American Family," the first show to turn the lives of real people into a documentary series. Parents Pat and Bill Loud split up during the 12 episodes, filmed in 1971; son Lance was openly gay.

But in this era of instant tabloid gossip and relentless paparazzi, the obvious question is why anyone would agree to put their children on TV, let alone seek a reality showcase. (Hello, "Balloon Boy.")

Enter Bob and Cortney Novogratz, who own a New York renovation and design firm. They buy abandoned buildings and turn them into spectacular homes.

The Novogratzes are featured in "9 by Design," a new series that takes its title from the fact that the family includes seven children, with two sets of twins and a newborn.

This isn't a conventional couple. Bob and Cortney named their fifth child Five — fine, except that he turned out to have a twin, who wasn't christened Five and a Half. Their family structure includes multiple moves, sometimes three in a year, although they note that they're careful that the kids don't have to change schools.

Executive producer Ken Druckerman describes the show as "a great mix of docu-series and also makeover series," adding, "On this show, I think you really learn something."

But when Bravo introduced the series to TV critics this winter, the Gosselin mess was still fresh in everyone's mind, and questions centered on the Novogratzes' motives. Why, one questioner wondered, would they put their children in front of the cameras when a show focusing just on the design work could have been perfectly interesting?

"The kids are in it because they are part of our life, but they are not a major part of the show," Bob Novogratz said. "But the kids, to be honest, had a fun time with it, and we only showed what we wanted to show."

To the contrary, the children are very much the focus of the first two episodes, which include the birth of child No. 7, Major, and his introduction into the family.

In addition to being an adventure, making the show was a learning experience, Cortney Novogratz said.

"Everyone kind of got the education of how a television show is made," she said. "You can't learn that in a textbook."

Baby Major is particularly fortunate, she said, because "in 20 years, he's going to know exactly what mom and dad were doing when he was born, and all his siblings, because we were filming a television show."

Even after her breakup, Kate Gosselin fought to keep her TV series going, complaining on one hand about being stalked by tabloid news crews while also describing her kids' tears when the TLC cameras stopped rolling.

The "Jon & Kate" disaster should be a cautionary tale for families, but so far, few seem to be taking heed. Last week, as TLC announced a new series for Kate Gosselin, plus specials featuring the kids, the cable network also touted two new shows about big broods and one about sisters running a cupcake business.

And even a bitter family feud couldn't keep the Teutuls off TV, it turns out. "American Chopper: Senior vs. Junior" will feature the battling father and son running competing motorcycle shops, TLC said.

"As always, creating eye-popping bikes is a big part of the show," the network said, "but the real story is the family drama."

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