Editor’s Note: Reality TV is only so real

What is real: The taxes you pay if you’re featured on a home improvement show
Steve Fennessy kitchen
Me, my wife Christy, and Fix This Kitchen hosts Eric Greenspan and Nicole Facciuto, in our new kitchen back in 2011. The kitchen was free; the taxes were not.

Photograph courtesy of Steve Fennessy

A few years ago my wife came across a casting call for a home improvement show called Fix This Kitchen: “Do you have a friend or loved one who has a real passion for cooking but is trapped in an outdated, nonfunctional, or just plain ugly kitchen?” Indeed she did: me. Our 1950 ranch house had a kitchen where both form and function had long ago been overtaken by shabby and schlocky. It wasn’t just that it was cramped (“charming,” as the listing real estate agent had disingenuously described it), but that it was clearly designed and built by someone whose day job might have been outfitting black sites for the CIA. Every time I cooked, food detritus got caught in the grout between the black tiles that served as the countertop. Pull out some of the drawers too far and they’d end up on the floor. Others didn’t close flush, giving the kitchen the sloppy appearance of a room after cops had turned it upside down.

Then there was the fire. Bad wiring above the kitchen ceiling set the insulation in the attic smoldering one evening. It wasn’t until I was in the kitchen getting a bottle for my infant son that I heard a crackling sound above me and looked up to see the ceiling brown and blistering. The fire department was there in minutes. We ended up living in a hotel for a few weeks.

So yeah, our kitchen needed fixing. The show’s producers saw our application and asked for a video submission. My wife obliged, filming me as I baked some cornbread in a skillet while negotiating the squalor. And then one day I came home from work and opened the door—to be faced with a bunch of TV cameras and lights, my kitchen already half demolished. That was the conceit: The producers conspire with the nominator (my wife) to surprise the recipient (me). They let me take a few swings with a sledgehammer then sent me off to a hotel. I was not permitted to come back for a week, for the “reveal.” Meanwhile, my wife worked with the hosts, on-camera and off-camera. When there wasn’t obvious conflict, the producers would gin some up. Continuity was key, as I came to understand later. Clothes you wore one day might need to be worn again on another. The shot of my pregnant wife unloading those boxes from the delivery truck? They were empty. Reality TV is only so real.

I was reminded of all this after reading this month’s package on Reality TV. The genre has established a beachhead in Atlanta, thanks to a lot of things—tax credits, a temperate climate, a backdrop that feels like it could be Anywhere, USA. All of these are explored in the package, which you can read here. Since Fix This Kitchen fixed my kitchen six years ago, the show’s been cancelled. But for every show that goes away, several more pop up, and more and more productions are finding all they need in Atlanta. Once in a while, as I’m washing dishes in my swank kitchen, I look out my back window and think, Man, a landscaping show would be perfect for my backyard.

This article originally appeared in our May 2017 issue.