Who Has Better Home Improvement Shows: HGTV or PBS?

Apparently I’ve been receiving most of my cable channels in error, and my carrier graciously corrected the situation with a terse letter and an abrupt cutback in service. Among the fallen were Food Network and HGTV, which were pretty much all my roommate and I watched.

Since then, I’ve turned on our local PBS station many times when I want some background noise. I joked with a friend on Saturday that WETA hit me with a trio of shows to keep me on the couch happily catnapping — a Julia Child followed by two! America’s Test Kitchens — and she was lucky they didn’t air an episode of This Old House right after, or I would never have dragged myself out of the house to hang out.

All those public television shows bring back strong memories of childhood, when that was pretty much all we were allowed to watch. I started watching out of nostalgia, but I kept watching because…well, it was refreshing to watch a cooking show that was actually mostly about cooking, and not the host’s oversized personality. There’s something less desperate — almost absurdly genuine — about PBS cooking and home improvement shows.

Yes, Julia Child and Bob Vila became popular because of their likable personalities, but I think part of why they were so likable, and enjoyable to watch, is because you felt you could share your love of a craft or skill with them. With the majority of hosts on Food Network or HGTV, I wind up feeling all I’ve been invited to share is the love of the host for him/herself.

Later last weekend, when I was treated with an episode of This Old House, I found myself marveling at the fact that I had actually learned something from it. I didn’t realize, until then, that even the renovation-heavy shows on HGTV, so much of the focus is on manufactured drama that a whole episode will go by in which I didn’t actually learn anything about home maintenance. Or, the emphasis is on superficial aspects — choosing the trendiest materials, adding high-end fittings — and not on how it all actually comes together. I will never be a general contractor, but I’ve always loved learning about how houses are built, and I hadn’t realized until now how profoundly that learning was missing from HGTV. Maybe losing all our channels was a good thing.

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