I'm often asked if I'm an avid watcher of TV home renovation/ design programs. The short answer is not really. The longer answer takes a lot longer to explain.


Here in Australia we've just finished another series of "The Block", which is the top rating home renovation show here. For overseas readers, the show's premise is that there are 4 nearly identical properties - a small apartment block, or small terrace houses in a row or on the same street. Couples (brothers/ sisters/ married/ unmarried/ friends etc) renovate one room a week which are judged by three judges in which the 'winner' of that weeks room reveal is given extra money to spend on their renovation. At the end of the series the properties are all auctioned, and the winner is the person who receives the best price on the day. The show has been running (with a long break in the middle) for around 11 years.


I haven't watched it much in recent years, despite two properties being located around the corner from my old house in Melbourne. I can remember those properties selling - some 3 years before the shows went to air.


The reason why I don't much like this show, and other shows like it, is that I think it has encouraged a really unpleasant side to Australian design and real estate. Firstly the show should not be viewed as a design show - it's a real estate flipping game show. The contestants are all very concerned about what "The Market" wants (this is constantly invoked by contestants, hosts and judges) so that they can maximise the money they get at the Auction. This is reinforced by the three judges who award points each week (giving the contestants more money to spend on their project). One week in the series last year one couple were told to go back to their Real Estate agent and talk to them about what "The Market" wants as they just weren't getting the design right. I'd also add that the judges are not eminent designers in the field of Architecture or Interior Architecture - there is a Decorator, the Editor of one of Australia's top Interiors magazines, and a TV personality/ Decorator who features on "Selling Houses Australia" (another show where they do up properties that are unsellable to finally achieve a sale). These are all disciplines that deal with the surface, rather than the substance behind it.


And the problem with focussing solely on what is "saleable", and what photographs or films well is that it follows all those trends that won't necessarily have longevity, often at the expense of good design. In these types of programs the Design is purely driven by re-sale, rather than good design, which tailors to an individuals circumstances and needs.


The other major problem I have with The Block (and other shows like it), is that it gives an unrealistic idea of how much it actually costs to renovate a property in Australia. The contestants last year were reminded that the Rules stated they "were to pay a minimum of $47/ hour for their tradespeople, and not to negotiate more than a 50% discount on goods". I have never met tradesmen/ women who will work for that sort of money in a city like Melbourne. Australia has very, very high labour costs for building. Crane drivers were earning $150,000 a year back when I was working on large construction sites in 2001. You'd be hard pressed to find even a newly minted labourer to work for that sort of rate, let alone a specialist tradesperson, such as an Electrician or Plumber. As for a 50% trade discount on goods - I've only managed that when I went to a (public) one- off warehouse sale. Trade discounts are nowhere near as generous on items like appliances, sanitary ware, taps or cabinetry hardware etc. So when these contestants are filmed saying things like "we only have $2000 to do our terrace" you should more than double it if you want what it would actually cost someone at home with normal resources to do it.


Before any of the teams set foot on the property, they have had all the Council development approvals go through, which has involved Architects, Engineers and other specialists consultants (Heritage or town planning) and all the fees that they command - none of this is ever mentioned or disclosed in their total "budget" that they spent on renovating the properties.


The unrealistic time lines displayed are laughable. A "room reveal" of an ensuite bathroom for each contestant had one couple in the last series getting a very large custom mirror installed on the morning of a public holiday with about 8 hours notice. The glazier worked overnight to cut it to size. If only this happens in the real world... Another week I heard the contestants sigh and say, "big week next week, we have to do the kitchen". Stone bench tops are not cut and installed in a week in the real world (the cupboards have to be completely in, a template cut and then it goes off to the stone yard to be cut to size before being brought onto site and installed). Nor can you get custom cabinetry measured up at the start of the week and installed 4 days later. Appliances usually take several days to arrive and be installed if you choose only what is in stock, and you need your appliances already selected and delivered to your cabinet maker for cupboards to be made around them at any rate.


So the main problem with all of this is that, sure, people realise this is entertainment TV, but there is still a large percentage that think they could do this at home too and in a not too dissimilar time frame. And they can't. In the area we used to live in in Melbourne (Albert Park), I would see the entry level single fronted cottages selling for a premium. They were the places that were completely run down. The purchasers were usually a young couple, who would live there for 2 years. In that time they'd do the place up a bit with a facelift (white paint throughout, polish the old floor boards), hire an Architect and get some development plans through the council to do a big gut and renovation (this part alone used to take around 6 months with the local council). They they'd cost it up with a builder once the approvals had gone through, find out it was going to cost them more than it would be worth once finished and sold, and usually they'd then sell it unrenovated…. to the next couple who would do the same thing. I saw several properties pass through 3 buyers in the time we lived there, ultimately never being renovated with the big extension as it cost too much and they'd paid too much to start with to ever be able to recoup their costs.


It is very difficult to make (genuine) money in residential property in Australia unless you have a way of leveraging your skills and experience - you're a Designer/ Tradesperson who can use their own time and skill in the project and/ or you have really good trade contacts so can get product a lot cheaper than a normal customer. A lot of people think they make money in property, but often it is just normal market rise if you take out costs (insurance, interest, stamp duty etc).





So I'm not hugely fond of TV property flipping entertainment shows that masquerade as Design/ renovation shows. They give a completely unrealistic idea of how much things actually cost and how long it takes to deliver completed rooms, they drive design toward what "The Market" wants (things that Agents can write in a short paragraph that sound impressive "Miele Kitchen/ Polished Boards/ Full Home Automation" etc), and they encourage the cult of what looks impressive in a photograph having been styled to death, rather than the practicalities of how we live. They are also shameless in their tie in deals with large retailers who place product in the show, and with the station that runs the program themselves (Australia's Channel 9) who have their own online shop where you can purchase items used for prop styling in the show.


Sigh. It frustrates me no end… but there is the beacon of hope - the highly credible Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs UK who has been doing his trick-free show for around 15 years now. His thoughtful commentary on design/ budget/ construction following real life renovation or new build homes is in a league of its own and much more representational of what renovating a property looks like. Give me that over the silly games added for content filler, the drawn out sagas of the personal lives of the contestants and the "fast fashion" decorating that is packaged up for mass entertainment in the guise of being Good Design.

All images via Channel Nines "Block Shop"

37 comments:

  1. I am an avid Watcher of shows on renovating and selling houses, just as I am an avid reader of design magazines. I would spend hours wathing them, but on the other side I have a critical eye and sometimes do not agree with the architect's solutions and designer's choices. They just don't meet the needs of the family, I totally agree with you.
    But even though I know it's almost all fictional, I am enchanted by some gorgeous interiors and look at them dreaming of my own dreamy house.
    Laura

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    1. Some of the end results are certainly impressive Laura, I agree. I've watched a vast array of different renovation shows, and Grand Designs is definitely in a league of its own though. Most others spend too much time with gimmicky sideshows of challenges and personality clashes etc or renovating to silly timeframes (such as 60 minute makeover as Naomi mentions below).

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  2. I have never seen this show BC they don't import many Aussie shows but I want to see now! Extreme makeover was crazy - do you remember it? There's a show called 60 minute makeover and my builder knows s few who work on it but basically the house falls apart in a few weeks. Grand designs shows real pain over several years - kinda like my house but without ol' Kev!

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    1. You should try seeing if they've got anything up on youtube if you're curious. The Block glasshouse was the one I used as the example (didn't watch the last series at all). Extreme makeover - was that the one with the guy called Ty in the US? It was crazy!! I've also seen the 60 minute one and though it looks like it's all going to fall apart in a week, as you said it does! Grand designs is much closer to reality. Nothing ever comes in on time and on budget in real life!!

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  3. Wow this show The Block sounds like reality tv combined with a home reno show and then put on steroids. I don't watch many of the home shows but I occasionally watch "Love It or Leave It", the last one I watched they did a full kitchen reno in about a week, and I had just finished mine which took several months so it didn't make much sense to me.
    I have known people who have tried to make money flipping houses and it hasn't worked out very well. Also the work they did was rushed and generic, with that DIY feel, not very exciting.
    I wish I could watch this Kevin McCloud, he sounds like the real deal.
    Really informative post Heidi, thanks so much. XO

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    1. It is a bit Dani! It's on 5 nights a week while it's running with blow by blow fights/ problems etc and they heavily dramatise the whole thing in a very drawn out manner. I've seen love it or leave it - and yes, as you say it's the same as the Block in that a one week kitchen renovation is literally impossible. You'd only be able to go to ikea and choose in stock cabinetry to be able to achieve it.
      I can't believe you don't get Kevin in Canada!!! It was on cable for a long time, but is now on commercial tv here, and it's excellent. He has a great manner, and his commentary is thoughtful and insightful and not condescending toward the people who appear on the show. Plus each episode of an hour is one house project which follows it over several years in some cases. There is often drama, but it's not sensationalised. xx

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  4. I love the Block as it is fun family entertainment. And yes it is just entertainment. And product placement. I figure their "one more day to reveal" is really one more week. And of course a lot of work is done by others well before hand. But none the less it can be fun to watch.

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  5. Oh, and thanks for the insight into the young would be renovators in Albert Park. I am not young but thought it would be fun to renovate an inner Melbourne house. I think I will now stick to investing in shares :)

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    1. Oh yes - avoid renovating inner city Melb properties like the plague. If you're looking for an investment, pick the right area, buy something done enough to be able to get good money renting it, and just get the market rise over a few year period. Renovating for profit is a minefield, and most people if you actually look at it have lost money on it (putting in $100k to sell it for $150 k more three years later is not making real money).

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  6. Loathe the Block and everything about it. The man that hosts it, not sure of what his name is, irritates me to the point of feeling itchy. As for Kevin, he is my secret crush. xx

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    1. Scotty?! But he's the tradie everyone loves!!! Don't they?! I have never met any woman who doesn't harbour a crush on Kevin. The Australian Grand Designs guy isn't a patch on him. xx

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  7. As always Heidi, this is a very interesting and well written post. I agree whole-heartedly with all your comments. We do watch The Block though and enjoy seeing 'what the market' is dictating in certain areas. The show has its finger on the pulse of what is currently fashionable albiet dictating a general sameness throughout the homes. The reality TV portion leaves me cold as do the unrealistic budgets and timeframes; we view those with great hilarity. As a builder, my hubby is constantly coming accross potential clients who have a 'McDonalds" fast-food mentality about their proposed project driven by shows like this. A very difficult mind-set to re-educate!
    Love Kevin and Grand Designs BTW.

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    1. I can imagine this frustrates your husband, and a lot of other Builders and tradies (who no doubt are unhappy when people seem to think they should charge $47/ hour and only take a week to do a bathroom)! I also find the whole thing so drawn out and overly dramatic, and tend to think it's pushed a very particular aesthetic on the whole of Australia - what works in Melbourne is not necessarily what works in Brisbane, or Perth etc… I think it's become quite homogenous as a result - you can see that in the magazines at the moment where all the houses look the same.

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  8. In the design process for a 'forever' home right now. It is frustrating to try and get people to think outside the 'trend' box. I have watched The Block and been impressed by the rooms but felt that it ten years time you would pick their vintage in seconds. Yet I get a hard time trying to explain why I want 650mm eaves and proper exposed rafter tails, timber casement windows and a simple, classic facade that suits the subtropics. I'm 'overcapitalising' because if we want to sell, 'the market' wants skillion roofs and stackstone columns! Lowest common denominator everything, it seems. As long as it has 'the look'.

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    1. I know what you mean about the trend box… I actually find the same thing in that generally people tend to try to get you to do what everyone else is doing, whether that be the style of tap ware, or the finish on the kitchen cupboards. It is hard to go against the grain, but good design will trump everything. I think if you go to sell you'll find there are a lot of people looking for a more classic and trend less house in The Market. I know our old house in Melbourne was popular for a few reasons, one being that it wasn't so slickly modern which appealed to the empty nesters who were looking to buy in the area, but finding houses more suited to professional couple types. Stick to your guns! Your house ideas sound perfect and I doubt very much you'll overcapitalise with things that won't date and will add to the feel of quality you'll achieve.

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  9. Great post Heidi.

    I don't watch the Block because I loathe everything about it and I think everything looks the same, they all love what I call "decorator art" and no one uses antiques and there's too much MDF and you can just tell it will date and I am bored senseless by real estate.

    I love my own home but find other people's reno projects boring (except for Grand Designs but I see that as a show about sense of self not real estate).

    Who are these tradies that charge $47 am hour? The call out rate for my tradies is $180.

    I love Kevin from Grand designs. My favourite one ever was the couple where the dad was in advertising and the mum was a cookery writer and they had special needs kids and were really into wild flowers. They had lots of books and you could tell they would be fun to have dinner with.

    xxx

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    1. Funny you mention "decorator art" - I have a post up my sleeve about it!! Agree with the mdf and the lack of antiques, but when you are doing fast fashion style interiors, these things don't work because they take time… like my new big antique mirror which was a 8 month process to find and buy.
      Agree about the tradies - usually you get the inner city premium slapped on, not the opposite with a price that anyone would find cheap as chips.
      I'm not sure I remember that GD? I've seen all of them though so maybe it's just not ringing bells. Sometimes he does get a very unappealing couple. I remember one who were building a very modern house on the Thames, and the neighbours hated them. They were the most selfish, self centred couple, and Kevin was the model of patience in visiting them and their fairly awful white boxy house.

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    2. The Lightbox?

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    3. Yes, I know the one. One of my favourites too. They didn’t even buy new furniture when they moved in and yet everything looked gorgeous. She cooked marvellous snacks for the builders and the son was helping the builders. Real people, not plastic people. I also loved the young couple who owned a risk climbing place and were doing all the work themselves on an old pump station (I think) The hubby created a desk out of a Mini. Also the wood carver with the tree in the centre of the house which created the staircase - such interesting people whose homes were such an expression of themselves. Love Kevin.
      Tonkath

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    4. Love/love Kevin too and all of the series - specially the many different types of people and the huge variety of housing types and styles and locations. After a first trial taste have never watched shows like "The Block" or similar - we find them irritating - mindless and boring.
      Lucky when renovating our kitchen, laundry and bathrooms. The guy we chose was strongly recommended by a number of work colleagues who gave us tours of their kitchens and other rooms he'd done for them. He came highly recommended for quality and reliability and sticking to time estimates and budgets. We spent a lot of time with him drafting up exactly what we wanted and then getting his advice and suggestions for improvements on our ideas. May be hard to believe but he finished on time and on budget (everything had been very carefully costed up front before we signed the contract). We're still happy with the work he did, over 11 years down the track now. But it wouldn't be popular taste as we chose rather dark wood for the kitchen cabinetry - jarrah with ivory/bone corian bench tops and blue and bone tiled splashbacks (using the same tile pattern as in Monet's kitchen at Giverny - bought through the National Gallery gift shop during the blockbuster Monet exhibition years ago) with large ivory/bone porcelain tiles on floor. Can just imagine on one of those TV shows they'd say - "not suitable for the market". Best wishes, Heidi. it's lovely to be home!
      PS Also love antiques - we have a small extension French cherry wood dining table, about 100 years old, also bought through National Gallery gift shop at the end of another French art blockbuster exhibition - cheaper than buying a modern table that might have been become tired and shabby (but not chic) after a few years. Happy for much loved antiques to be beautifully shabby (genuinely - not shabbified as in Rachel Ashwell) - and with a wonderful patina. If this makes any sense? Pammie xxx

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  10. Loved this post, Heidi! Just loved it.
    I have not ever watched a full episode of "The Block" (nor any of those "flip houses around/renovate in 5 seconds" type programmes - for all the reasons you have mentioned. People often say to me (as I have such an interest in interiors/antiques and art) "oh, you must love The Block" (or whatever similar programme is on at the time) and look perplexed/shocked when I say I have no interest in them. At. All. I don't find them entertaining in the slightest.
    I love my home and love collecting and being surrounded by things I love in an environment I love to be in. For me and my family, but not so that it is making a "current statement". And I admire those that do the same. Which is why I love Mr McLeod's wonderful show and his thoughtful analysis of the whole process. (Yes, I'm another one to have a bit of a thing for him...) I also loved to watch Caroline Quentin's 'Restoration Home' (on BBC) for the same reason. Miss Q is so lovely and respectful of those with a passion for renovating a home (or castle/barn/church!) and follows the process (and more importantly, the people behind it) so beautifully. I love historian Kate Williams and the very debonaire architectural expert Kieran Long's research into the history of the buildings on it as well. It's just lovely viewing. And I think I have more than a bit of a crush on Kieran Long....
    Thank you again for truly hitting the nail on the head! I really enjoyed your views - I literally found myself nodding along the whole time! Fabulous.
    xx Caroline

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    1. I love Restoration Home too - the people are so passionate about restoring things to the way they were, and honouring the original building etc...and often the time lines are huge so are much more reflective of the way in which most people find a renovation. Glad to hear from this chain of comments that I'm not the only one that feels this way too - it's such a ratings hit that I tend to feel like the only one out there that finds it all so unappealing!

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  11. Can't do the block. My fella loves it but I cringe.
    Thanks for the trade insights.
    Most reality shows make me cringe.
    Except Masterchef. Love Masterchef

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    1. Yes, be prepared for much higher bills when you do your reno Cilla! I find all the reality shows so irritating - the whole blow by blow recap of things you see on screen that last one minute and then they spin out to five through narration by contestants is dullsville. xx

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  12. Hi Heidi this is such an interesting post. Coming from residential selections background the block certainly filtered through especially in early years where the decorating was very diy and trying to explain that function of the ideas were not just impractical but didn't meet the bca.... However I still watch it intermittently. I watched reno rumble too - just online when I had time but found it to be so much better. Still the "don't have time to let it set" time frames and "themes" for the decoration which was funny but probably not meant to be, however the variety made it more interesting. I have always loved Kevin - he seems to speak in design poetry has strong ideas and shares them is so polite. For "flipping" shows I have always loved Sarah beeney. I like that she used to make it really clear that often they hadn't made any actual profit except market rise. Or that in fact leaving it up renovated May have even made more money. Very funny at times watching as she was clearly an expert and first timers would waste time and money not listening to her as they thought the knew better. Sarah Richardsons Design inc also used to show time frames, setbacks etc really well, love her style particularly the classic stuff from this era - very safe & quiet but easy to live with for the long term. I often think the " reality" in Australian shows gets in the way of what could be good content. Lastly the house 100k built - I have only seen a few and the architect does seem to push his aesthetic but also is a great journey type building show and very unique projects showing how design (good) design can greatly improve how you live in a house and the " costs " to achieve it are not always so high.

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    1. The block in its early years was completely different to how it is now - much more realistic and I seem to remember they all had to hold down normal jobs while renovating at night. Much more DIY and very varying styles that weren't so driven by the "market" but rather personal taste. It's a very different beast now, much slicker, less 'real'. I do love Sarah Beeney too - in fact the English shows tend to be much better than the Oz ones. There are a few that are terrible (like 60 minute makeover), but Sarah and the restoration man series and a few others are great. I don't think I've seen the 100k house show though, so will def go to look it up.

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  13. I call these shows "house porn" - about as much like real-life thoughtful renovation and redoing as "porn porn" is like real romantic love. Same feelings about the Househunters shows, especially the episodes where the couple has 3 days to go to a foreign country - with kids and animals - and purchase or lease a "home." So thank you for this logical and realistic post. I so appreciate your insights.

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    1. Well, I'd agree with you there Fred - I'm pretty sure no one is rushing out to get on the tools and do some DIY after watching these shows. We have another ratings winner here in Oz called Masterchef, and while it rates really highly, people don't actually cook anything like what is produced in Masterchef, but sit and watch avidly every night. And then order pizza or something.

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  14. Hello Heidi -
    I'm not familiar with The Block, but I agree. What I find most irritating with U.S. home shows is the trendy decor. Why can't they mix it up by featuring homes with different points of views??!! I'd love to see antiques and real art incorporated. And also a mix of high and low.
    Cheers

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    1. I agree, actually was just thinking that. Possibly the reason why they don't mix it up is that certain stores and suppliers have tie ins with the show.

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    2. "The block" definitely has far too many tie ins now, so it really limits what is showcased. The timelines are also so tight that it means most contestants don't search for unique pieces in antique shops etc as they just don't have the hours to devote to it. It would be a much more interesting show if there were more price point variety (it's all aimed at the aspirational mass market) and featured a more interesting high/low mix as is in most peoples homes (and certainly people that are clever at decorating).

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  15. Can't stand those shows, waiting for the craze to be over ! would rather watch those housewives in NYC :)

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    1. Well after 10 years we can only hope that the Sydney and Melbourne property market means they're unable to buy blocks of flats in trendy inner city locations to do the show in!

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  16. I absolutely love makeover shows but they provide only the cheap thrill that most reality TV shows offer. I know I will look back at the properties in a matter of months and detest everything about them! Now, Grand designs is a totally different story! I can watch years old episodes and still appreciate the homes. A property with love and care and time and patience poured into it is a far better property, and it shows. I must say I adore Peter Maddison from GDA. He's so nice and knows his stuff (from what I can see, but I am not versed in design or architecture).

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    1. I'm sure in the future you'll be right Anna and the decor in these shows will look incredibly dated. It's all very trendy and of the moment, so it will be interesting to see how even 5 years will make it all look very out!

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  17. A fascinating read Heidi. I have never watched The Block - but have watched House Rules. I agree with Loi about the rushed use of modern pieces/treatments to complete the look. There are so many young people endeavouring to tackle renovations today and these programs are inspirational I suppose. While I was away, I didn't watch TV at all and I must say returning home to be bombarded by all these reality shows is a bit depressing!! xxx

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    1. I don't watch a lot of tv I have to say as I find it so boring! There are far too many reality shows… although my children love the new Spelling Bee contest, and it is pretty cute. Best reality show I've seen for a long time! But the house ones tend to leave me cold, and I do think they don't do anyone a service as people really do think they are 'reality'!

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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on anadelaidevilla@bigpond.com
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