We live in an era where home improvement personalities like the Property Brothers Jonathan and Drew Scott and Fixer Upper debutante Joanna Gaines and her husband Chip have become well-known celebrities and have successfully marketed their image, name, and work into something with broad-reaching public appeal.
However, this breed of light-hearted entertainment with a practical twist isn’t anything new. It’s well worth peering into the past and giving some recognition to the home-repair experts that have trail-blazed this path from their sawdusty workshops straight into our living rooms.
One of these crafty fellas is a man by the name of Bob Vila. He first found a modicum of success on public television but with hard work, dedication, and with a little bit of help from his superbly likable personality, he eventually found himself somewhere he never expected – that is, in the global spotlight with corporate sponsorship, far-reaching advertising campaigns, and even corporate branding that carried his name.
Villa gained wide-scale recognition on This Old House, a DIY home renovation show that originally aired on WGBH, a Boston area PBS affiliate. The show premiered in 1979 and in the ten years that Bob Vila was its host it saw over 11 million viewers and hoards of accolades and awards including several Emmy’s.
When Bob left the wildly popular show in 1989, there was a lot of speculation and conflicting reports as to why he took his leave. We sifted through all the information and got to the bottom of the issue. So stick around for the whole video to learn the startling truth about why one of America’s most iconic handymen parted ways with the show that revolutionized the way we look at home improvement.
Facts Verse Presents The Real Reason Bob Vila Left “This Old House”
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Bob Vila Became The Face Of Home Repair – Humble Beginnings
As we already mentioned, This Old House redefined the way we look at home renovation. Never before was the topic presented on television in such a dynamically entertaining way.
Each season would take an old dilapidated home and completely transform it into a vibrantly modern refurbished masterpiece. Today’s HGTV-centric house flipping shows typically show a house transformed over the course of a single episode – glossing over most of the finer details with broad stroke production style. This old house however showed that same process but up close and person, step by step, and with excruciating attention to detail.
Producer Russell Morash pitched the show as an adventure story when the show expanded into national syndication in 1980. He framed the show as having elements of anticipation ingrained within each episode. What”s going to happen next week? How are they going to solve this major issue that they ran into?
The show never set out to be a hardcore DIY how-to kind of show, but more so attempted to take a relatively mundane process and transform it into something that was both entertaining and educational.
Bob Vila’s Big Break
Vila fell into the job of being a host as a result of the success of his home restoration business R.J. Vila inc. which had received some rather flattering press after renovating a Victorian-style house in Newton Center, Massachusetts.
Better Homes and Gardens magazine had given him an award and a great write-up for his work on that project. Additionally, the Boston Globe gave Vila and his wife a profile for that restoration. Bob had tried his best to go about that undertaking with an eye for detail. He wanted to preserve the classic attributes that made the house so beautiful in the first place – and he also had some personal motivation as he and his wife purchased the home after its completion.
The Genesis of This Old House
It was his profile in the Boston Globe and the reputation he and his crew had garnered with the Newton Center house that caught the eye of WGBH, the Boston-region public television station. They had been looking for someone to helm a home-improvement show and Bob fit the bill perfectly.
Bob would host This Old House for a solid decade. The show went into national syndication in its second season and he would quickly become a household name.
A Masterful Producer
Russell Morash, the producer we quoted just a minute ago, had much to do with the success of the show. He was no stranger to crafting successful shows that went from low-profile public television offerings to international sensations.
He had co-developed a cooking show, The French Chef, on WGBH with Julia Child that ended up being the launching pad for her hugely successful career. Additionally, he also created The Victory Garden In 1975 which went on to become the longest-running gardening program in the United States – so basically, Morash is the godfather-like figure with a Midas touch for public television.
Hiding The Branding
Because the show aired on public television, the cast and crew made it a point to avoid mentioning specific brands on their show. Morash told Boston Magazine in 2009 that there was a pretty notable example of this in the show’s early days.
Vila and company would actively hide the packaging and logo of Owen’s Corning on their rolls of fiberglass. The irony here is that Owen’s Corning was actually one of the underwriters for This Old House.
This situation actively led to the company changing the packaging and labeling of the roles so that hiding their branding was impossible.
A Solid Cast Came Together – But Villa Begins To Falter
For that first decade, the show highlighted demolitions, renovations, and all the painstaking hiccups that happened in-between. We saw familiar faces like Richard Trethewey, the HVAC expert, and Norm Abram, the master carpenter come on to the scene and become the definitive gurus of their respective fields. It was always Vila however that took up most of the screen time explaining what all was happening.
Norm and Richard are still going strong on This Old House nearly 40 years later. Abrams in fact is virtually the co-host these days. But what exactly happened to Vila? Why would his colleagues continue to carry the torch but not himself? Well, we’re getting to that, but to put it simply, he began to outgrow the confines of the very thing that made him famous in the first place.
Bigger Issues At Play
Vila’s eventual departure wasn’t purely to do with him outgrowing his britches so-to-speak, although that certainly had something to do with it too. There were undercurrents behind the scenes that were causing the public television waters to become quite treacherous.
PBS had always made it their aim to provide quality programming for the public but the Reagan administration was aggressively trying to defund public television in those years. Ronald would even go so far as to veto bills that wanted to increase the PBS budget.
This is a fairly common problem for public television to face when right-leaning presidential incumbents are taking the reigns of the nation. PBS solved this funding problem by allowing corporations to fund the show through underwriting.
Of course, this is a somewhat controversial practice as it means that corporate interests get to dictate what makes it on to the airwaves – thus jeopardizing the point of public television in the first place.
Vila Wasn’t Exactly Raking In The Cash
Another way where these budget issues become evident was with the underwhelming pay for the show’s cast. Bob was only receiving $200 dollars per episode when the show debuted. That later increased to $800 an episode but considering that 235 episodes where made in the shows 10-year run, that means that the max he could have made from the show was $188,000.
That’s peanuts considering the fact that he was a master handyman and contractor. He really just treated the hosting job as a way of promoting his R.J. Vila inc. enterprise. It was a way to get great recognition and publicity – a fancy form of free advertising.
If he wanted to make real money from his reputation, he would have to become a corporate pitchman. That’s exactly what he would go on to do – and that would also be the beginning of the end for his affiliation with This Old House.
Despite being transparent with his bosses at WGBH about his commercial ventures, troubles soon would begin to brew.
The Final Straw
Home Depot was the clear retail frontrunner in home improvement even in the early 80s. They were also an underwriter for This Old House.
So when Vila became a spokesman for one of The Home Depots’ major competitors Rickels Home Center, they were pretty peeved. It didn’t matter that he had previously been upfront with his bosses about his business dealings at this point because The Home Depot threatened the network to pull out as underwriters if Bob didn’t sever his ties with their competitor.
So, Vila’s producers brought him into the office and asked him to drop his spokesman gig with Rickels. Bob, however, refused to cut those ties because they were in fact the primary source of his income. He was making $500,000 a year in his endorsements, and seeing that he was making next to nothing on This Old House, it seemed like a no-brainer which of the two involvements he’d prioritize, so he quit – well actually he was fired. But it was more like one of those, “YOU CAN’T FIRE ME, I QUIT” kind of scenarios.
Departing This Old House actually became something of a blessing to Bob. He started his own syndicated show Home Again in 1990 which gave him more creative freedom for his ideas and also found decades of success.
He also partnered up with Sears and became the face of that brand for nearly two decades until 2006, when that relationship too dissolved when Sears began facing major financial obstacles.
Tensions remained high between Vila and This Old House in the years following his departure, especially since the show began capitalizing on endorsements and product placements in a way that seemed hypocritical to how they dealt with his business ventures – but even still Vila retained partial ownership of the franchise for 15 years.
That wraps up another facts-tastic video. But we’d love to hear from you. Which show did you like better, This Old House or Home Again? Let us know what you think in the comments section, and before you go, don’t forget to send us a like and subscribe to our channel.