Top 5 Reasons Bob Vila Is the Best TV Host
March 16, 2013
Every now and again someone comes along and changes their industry profoundly. Bob Vila is undoubtedly that guy when it comes to How-To. His name is synonymous with home improvement and his work has been instrumental in the ever-growing DIY ecosystem.
When I was growing up I remember spending Saturdays watching marathons of This Old House and Home Again with my father. Both shows were unlike anything I had seen up until that point. A chance to watch and learn while Bob and his builders worked on various jobs ranging from smaller renovations to immense new construction projects. This rare glimpse into the world of home improvement was titillating to say the least.
Bob is arguably the grandfather of the How-To show with similar shows like Home Time and Trading Spaces taking cues from This Old House and Home Again, literally transforming the landscape of infotainment television and giving birth to new networks dedicated to home improvement, such as TLC, DIY Network, and HGTV. Bob's work also inspired a new generation of confident (some would argue overconfident) do-it-yourselfers who would have otherwise called a plumber or hired a carpenter to fix their problems. Moreover, Bob's work greatly benefited the bottom line of such companies as Sears and The Home Depot, transforming them from stores you visit when you need to buy a screw or a lawnmower to home improvement Meccas that have become tent poles of a multibillion dollar industry.
You can imagine my delight when I discovered that my $7.99 per month Hulu+ subscription gave me access to 15 seasons of Home Again with Bob Vila. Starting from season 1 which originally aired in September of 1990, I began meticulously watching each episode, reinvigorating my interest in home improvement and fulfilling my newfound need for a healthy dose of Bobby V.
So why has Mr. Vila had such an impact on the hosted reality genre? Why has his career on television spanned over four decades and why is he still relevant? Most importantly, why do most other "How-To" TV hosts SUCK compared to him? Here are 5 reasons to contemplate:
1. “This Room is Approximately 10x12…”
You're damn right it is. Anyone who can walk into a space and tell you how big it is, is a genius in my book. Those in the film industry will tell you that any good focus puller can estimate distance - pull this. His accuracy is uncanny and the way he asserts the dimensions of a space makes you feel like even if he's wrong, he's right. Of course, he's rarely wrong. The take away here is that no matter what space he's in, he has full command of the room. Almost to suggest that by knowing the size of the space, he has a complete understanding of its potential. To that end, throughout his show, you will discover he can name every species of wood he sees and identify every variety of plant he touches. He can talk to anyone about anything.
2. “Why Do We Use Step Flashing”
Talk about knowing every detail of a process. Home improvement can be tricky and pesky details like local building codes often complicate the matter. What seems like contrived methodology usually has a very good and fairly simple reason behind it. Bob is second to none when it comes to reiterating each step of a process for us dummies to understand. For instance, he ascends a ladder onto the roof and comes upon a roofer laying shingles around a skylight. As the roofer is working Bob asks, "Now why do we use step flashing around the skylight?" to which the roofer replies (usually in a thick Boston accent), "Well Bob, we use step flashing in between each row of shingles to protect against water infiltration where the skylight meets the roof." Now Bob has been set up to explain, "That's right, any water that gets behind the shingles will travel down the flashing instead of penetrating the roof or wicking up the wall and damaging the skylight." And with that, we now understand why we step flash around anything that protrudes the surface of a roof such as a chimney or a wall. It doesn't get any tighter than that. His ability to articulate a concept succinctly is what sets him apart. Now let's sit back and watch this guy step flash.
3. “Let's Take a Look at Our Visit To…”
In any given episode of Home Again, you'll hear Bob throw to a package about his visit to (fill in the blank). These pieces are strategically woven into the fabric of the show giving us a little more insight into how things like windows are made, lumber is kiln dried, or the story behind a historic building. No matter which subject he's exploring, they're a breath of fresh air and make great filler content thus rounding out the show. While we go on our journey with Bob to the factory or to the museum, we are just as curious as he is about the behind-the-scenes details. Getting us to care about and appreciate the story behind how something like paint is made, is a skill unto itself. We graciously follow him wherever he takes us, proving that having a little bit of context is enough to engage the viewer and hold their attention for the remainder of the episode.
4. “Shut Your Mouth” (I'm paraphrasing)
Back in the late 70's - early 80's this type of television was new and rare. Nowadays everyone and literally their mother, has a camera on their phone. We aren't surprised when someone takes our picture or shoots some video, so we tend to be slightly more comfortable with the idea of being on camera. When This Old House and Home Again came on the scene you can imagine how strange it must have been for a local carpenter or mason to suddenly be thrust in front of a camera having to go tit for tat with Bob Vila. Occasionally they would get caught up in what they're trying to say and begin to ramble. Normally this would ruin a show. Not on Bob's watch. With an abrupt, "Okay, so you put this in there and turn that." Bob regains control from the derailment and still manages to respectfully help the tradesman make his point. Make no mistake about it, recovery is a very difficult challenge for a host. It's really more of an art form. Especially if you're trying to work in real time and not do 20 takes of the same thing. Bob's ability to recognize that the audience might be getting frustrated, then swoop in and smooth out the rough edges, is to be admired. The only way to tastefully pull that kind of thing off, is to have a complete understanding of the subject matter so that you can gracefully mold a segment around whatever resources you have available to you at the time. Whether that resource is a mush mouth electrician or a foundation subcontractor who forgets that typical residential concrete was rated at around 3000 PSI in the early 90's. Bob's got your back. It's time to shut up and get back to work.
5. “Let Me Give You a Hand with That”
Today very few hosts can actually do anything other than talk to a camera. Ryan Secrest is an animatronic and half the hosts on TLC are laymen. Not Bob Vila. Bob seems to know how to do everything on the job site with unapologetic bravado. Have you ever seen him pick up a hawk and trowel and put a scratch coat on a wall? It's child's play to him. Regardless of how reckless his vigor may seem, he isn't afraid to grab a hammer and nail and after telling you it's size in pennies, help frame up a partition. Bob jumps in, lends a hand, puts a level on it, plumbs it and teases the next segment all in one take. So F You Ty Pennington. Part of his allure is demonstrating his ability to know and understand each and every facet of building. By participating in the process he shows he's part of the team and not just a talking head. Many times he will jump from fulfilling his duties as host, to getting his hands dirty, then right back to wrapping up the segment. It takes more than chutzpah to be a great host. Bob can walk the walk and talk the talk.
In addition to these five observations, it's worth mentioning the simplicity of his show from a production standpoint. The production approach is no accident. It is very much by design. Up until recently his show was a single camera, mostly handheld show with very few cuts if any. I've lost track of the number of segments where Bob takes us from beginning to end without a single cut; only a simple zoom every now and again. You have to respect that kind of restraint especially now when we can now put GoPros on hammers while four or five cameras capture every possible angle. Both Bob and his long term DP/Director, Larry LeCain, have managed to parlay a traditional vérité-style documentary approach into a syndicated commercial production, all while preserving the things that make the building process so exciting and appealing. While you watch the show you feel like you're really there. You can't wait to see the results in the final tour and share in Bob's excitement as he reviews what seems like each and every decision that went into the project. You develop a vested interest in the because it's not just about the TV show, rather, it's about the material and the people that bring it to life.
So if you're auditioning for that next hosting gig and you're wondering how to get the job and have longevity in the business, watch and learn. Know your craft. Know your subject. And know your shit. Maybe one day you too will become a household name, like Bob Vila.