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111-The State of Gardening TV in Changing Times, with HGTV’s Paul James

| Podcast, Resources

Recently, I was fortunate to have gardening television legend, Paul James, as my guest at the GardenFarm. He joined me for the filming of an upcoming Season 10 episode of my show Growing a Greener World®, and of course, we had a fantastic time. Paul’s humor is just as sharp as during his Gardening by the Yard days, and his personality and love of gardening are as extraordinary as ever.

While he was here, we also found time to sit down for a conversation about the fading support for gardening in broadcast television. This was Paul’s second time as a guest on the podcast, and today’s episode is a complement to our first show together.

My show notes are rarely just a transcript, but it made sense this time around. So, here’s a play-by-play of my talk with Paul as well as links to additional information, but I also recommend that you listen in by clicking the Play icon in the green bar just above. Paul and I shared many laughs, so I’m certain you will enjoy.

Joe: So we just finished this day and a half shoot with Paul James, and it was for an episode of Growing a Greener World. And the ironic thing is, it’s been 11 years since Paul actually was on camera for an entire episode. He’s a little out of shape for daily television routine, but he did not miss a beat. This guy – it’s just like riding a bike. He picked up right where he left off.

I’ve got him in studio today. We’re going to talk about a few issues that don’t make it into the television show, because frankly, they’re a little bit controversial. But that’s what this podcast is for – is an opportunity to kind of let your hair down and go for it. So Paul, first of all, welcome to the show. Really glad you’re here today.

Paul James: Great to be here. What do you mean I’m out of shape. What was that all about?

Joe: I tried to fix that midstream. I’m not sure I did very well. And by the way, let me just say, for the record, you’re aging in reverse. You look fantastic. You sound good. You look good. All of that.

Paul: Oh, thank you.

 

gardening television legend, Paul James

Paul James is a legend in the world of gardening television. His fun-loving wisdom from Gardening by the Yard is still deeply missed by gardeners everywhere.

 

Joe: Yeah, and that is the truth. I’m not just saying that. During Gardening by the Yard, you rode the wave and kind of set the bar for a lot of new gardening shows coming on only to eventually see all of those shows sooner or later die off. And yours was really kind of The Last of the Mohicans. Was it 13 years running?

Paul: Yeah, 13 years. 19 seasons.

Joe: That’s amazing. 19 seasons over 13 years. And when you would do a season chronologically, how much time is that in the year?

Paul: Generally about five months of production, and then of course, I wrote everything. So that took a lot of time.

Joe: Yeah, no kidding. What was the most number of episodes you did in a season?

Paul: 39 the first year.

Joe: Oh, my gosh.

Paul: Yeah, it was maddening. It was like gardening Jihad.

Joe: Was that seven days a week, or what was that?

Paul: It was 21 days straight at one point.

Joe: Oh, my gosh.

Paul: That was the record, and it was all done at my house too. So it was imposing on my family, and I had little kids then, three little kids. And it was awful to be honest with you, because you know – I was the prop master, I was the writer, I was the set designer basically. So I had to make sure the garden looked right. Had to have all my props together, had to have the scripts done, and … It was a near-impossible task. We pulled it off, but I would never want to return to something like that.

Joe: Is that when you got all your gray hair?

Paul: No, I had that before. But I finally put my foot down and said, “No, I’m not going to do this this way anymore.” And thankfully, I had a convincing enough argument. The network said, “Yeah, makes sense.”

Joe: Well, you’re very persuasive, and sometimes, it’s quality over quantity. When you put that many shows back-to-back, it just starts to wane. Right? That quality?

Paul: Well, it’s just tough to have the energy. I mean, the physical and the mental energy to get through it.

Joe: Well, I think about our first season. We did 26 episodes, and everybody up at APT and PBS thought we were crazy. They kept asking, “Are you sure you mean 26 versus 13, because that’s the norm.” Right?

Paul: Sure.

Joe: And so we said, “No, we’re going to do 26.” And we just, I came from a prior series where we were doing 30 shows a year, but they were just – we’d do a show in half a day, and it was … the lack of production value and all that stuff. So, you can do that.

But ours – we were full-on production value, and it just nearly killed us. What I think about as the producer and the host; the stress, the mental stress and the fatigue I go through getting ready for a show, and I’ve got days to prepare for it – even when we shoot here. And sometimes, that’s the most stressful, because you really … you’re under pressure to make your place look good. The expectations are so high, because it’s your place.

Paul: Sure. Right.

Joe: But I can’t even imagine, Paul, that you pulled that off like you did; and you did such a great job. You really set the bar for gardening shows and the quality of it. I mean, you were the guy that everybody watched, including me. But at some point over those 13 years, and as you approached those 13 years, there came a time where there was kind of a changing of the guard and a different mind shift on the value that they were putting on gardening television, right? And this is HGTV.

Paul: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard people say, “Where’s the G in HGTV?” I wouldn’t be here.

Joe: Oh! Oh, nice.

 

Growing a Greener World crew filming Paul James

It had been years since he was involved with filming, but the Growing a Greener World crew and I put Paul through the paces. It was a fun and rewarding day for the whole team.

 

Paul: No, there was a changing of the guard at the corporate level, and they decided that gardening just wasn’t … that wasn’t the direction they wanted to go anymore. The fixer-upper, flippers – those kinds of shows apparently attracted a bigger audience. I mean, one of the strangest things about gardeners – well, about gardening programming – is they would often put it on Saturday mornings. Well, and to this day, gardening shows typically are on a Saturday morning. Well, where is any gardener worth his or her skills? They’re out in the garden.

Joe: Darn right.

Paul: So, and back then, it was VHS days. But I still have people that approach me, and they say, “I have every one of your shows on VHS.”

Joe: Oh, my gosh.

Paul: Really? You still have a player?

Joe: God forbid when that player goes down. Their life is over.

Paul: Better digitize that stuff in a hurry.

Joe: You’re darn right. No wonder there’s a cottage industry for that sort of thing.

So, the shift after your show went by the wayside. There are a handful of shows through the PBS model, like mine and a few others. But that’s challenging because we’re out there raising our own money.

You’re paid a talent fee, and a budget is provided for what you do. But you didn’t have the added pressure – that one additional thing of trying to go out and make all of that work based on the money that you went out and had to raise on top of it.

But today, although that model still exists, which is the model that I’m on, there are a lot more people out there producing garden content. It’s just digital. It’s online, which on the upside can be a good thing because there’s a lot more access to information. But on the downside, anybody can put anything out there; and who’s to say whether that’s solid, real good information or not?

Paul: It is a problem. I mean, I spend a lot of time looking at what’s online, and I see, with all due respect to younger people, I see some misinformation. I see some flat out wrong information. I see things that, I’m sorry, I just – I’m not buying it.

So now, the flip side of that is there’s some young people who are very, very passionate about gardening and are acquiring a lot of knowledge. But it was funny, because when I was at HGTV the young programming executives would ask me, “Why are your guests so old? We need you to bring in younger guests.”

My response was, “Well look, if I’m going to do a show on blueberries, I want to interview the guy that’s been growing blueberries for 50 years.” –  which I did in Bellevue, Washington. Someone 26, I mean, more power to them; but they don’t have the same level of experience growing blueberries or whatever it might be.

So, I thought that was a bit of a dis, and particularly since when HGTV launched, its audience was mainly slightly older folks. And then, there was a point in cable television where everyone wanted to skew younger.

Joe: Yes.

Paul: Well, that’s easier said than done. I mean, how do you skew younger? And I couldn’t address that. I didn’t know how.

Joe: No kidding. Well, one of the ways, I think they thought that they could do it – like for example, when I was selected to host DIY network’s Fresh From The Garden, they were specking out a host that had certain credentials. And the demographic, as far as the age that they wanted, was I think 35 to 40. So, I fit into that, barely – but on the young side, by the way, just for the record.

Paul: And for the record, you don’t fit in there anymore. Nor do I.

Joe: But here’s the thing. Thankfully at the time, that’s who they were looking for. I would have never even been considered. These days, even 35 would not even be considered. They want a young 20, up to something – maybe tops, high 20’s.

Paul: Right.

Joe: That’s it. But where’s the wisdom in that? And that’s not to say that it’s not possible, but as you said, the experience only comes with time.

Paul: It does. And otherwise, you might end up with a show where a producer is feeding lines to the talent. So, the talent is nothing more than a host. They’re not necessarily a gardener.

Joe: A talking head.

Paul: I can usually spot those people right away.

Joe: Very much. Yeah. The authenticity goes away when you’ve got those people in there.

Paul: Absolutely.

Joe: So, do you think that this new shift and permanent shift, really, towards digital content and everybody being able to put it out there – do you think that’s helping or hurting, attracting a gardening audience?

Paul: Tough to say. I mean look, I embrace new technology, new ways of disseminating information. I’m all for it. It’s not something that I really feel like I can answer that intelligently, Joe. I don’t know where we’re going, quite frankly.

I mean, the biggest problem is, those who want to get the word out, whatever the message might be – they need to monetize it. And that creates all kinds of issues.

I mean – if you’re an influencer on Instagram, are you just a mouthpiece for that company, or do you genuinely believe in their product? And it’s hard to say. I mean, because I’ve seen a lot of them; and I question their authenticity, basically.

 

Behind the scenes with Paul James at the GardenFarm

It was a real thrill for me to have Paul visit my GardenFarm and join me in an episode of Growing a Greener World.

 

Joe: Well, it’s easy. I guess maybe it’s from our perspective in what we’ve come up through to just see right through that, in many cases. And I understand that is a whole new economy and a great opportunity for influencers to make money, because a lot of money and product are being thrown their way.

Paul: Right.

Joe: And that’s their career now. I mean, so that’s how they monetize it.

Paul: And more power to them. I mean, I get that. We’ve got to make a living, right? And it’s a great opportunity when you’ve got young people knocking down some serious coin as influencers.

But from my point of view, I turned down so many opportunities, because I felt like I have to look at myself in the mirror every morning. I have to know that I’m being true to myself and that I’m being true to my audience, and I wasn’t willing to compromise back then. So – but it’s tricky, and it’s getting even trickier.

It’s just like in the news biz. There used to be – whether print or broadcast, digital, whatever  – there used to be a very clear cut line between advertising and editorial. Well, now that wall is as porous as it’s ever been.

Joe: Absolutely.

Paul: So, who do you believe?

Joe: Right, and where are those filters, you know?

Paul: Right.

Joe: So, that leads me to a question for you. As I mentioned a minute ago, your model when you were doing Gardening by the Yard was that you were hired, basically.

Paul: Correct.

Joe: And HGTV owned the content and all of that.

Paul: Correct. I was a contract employee.

Joe: Okay. So my show, I own all the content. But it’s up to me to go find the funding for every penny I need to spend on the show. Otherwise, I come out of pocket, and that’s not a good business model, right? But at the same time, you are at the mercy of those underwriters. And thank God for Subaru and companies like that, who have been supporting Growing a Greener World since the beginning.

Paul: Great car, by the way.

Joe: Thank you. Yeah, and they make a great car. But I’m really kind of at the mercy of whether or not those underwriters continue to underwrite my show from year to year to year. And sometimes you don’t find that out until the end of the season, when they’ve decided to shift towards a digital strategy, for example – which happens all the time these days. So, they’re moving away from broadcast.

So the question then becomes – these companies out there that might support a gardening show that actually can write those big checks. They’re wanting product placement, or they’re wanting more association with their product in the show. And in a Public Television model, you can’t do that, because it’s non-commercial. That’s how they are able to do what they do and get the licenses they get.

So now, we have to ask ourselves – if we can’t put product placement into the show, and yet these companies are … Maybe you didn’t feel good about, Paul, like you said, “Looking in the mirror and feeling good about that, working with that company, accepting that offer.” But now maybe they’ve got products that are aligned with your philosophy of gardening – organic products for example.

Paul: I think I know where you’re going here.

Joe: Okay. Yeah. In case the others don’t – it’s like, now where do you draw that line? Are you okay with helping support a side of that company or part of that company’s brand if that brand is aligned with organic fertilizer or insecticidal soap versus a non-selective synthetic pesticide for example?

Paul: Right.

Joe: Is that okay? Or if the company behind it is still not a company, in principle you support; do you draw the line and say no to that, knowing that your influence is important to a large audience to hopefully sway them towards whatever it is you’re talking about – such as an organic choice.

Paul: I gotcha.

Joe: Okay.

Paul: So, one of the biggest problems in getting the word out about the importance of gardening organically, and this is going back years and years and years, is that so many of the manufacturers of organic products don’t have huge budgets for advertising. And they can’t afford television at all in most cases. So, that limited those companies’ ability to get the word out.

If a company that I might not really align myself with, because they produce malathion for instance or some other, like you said, some other synthetic product that I would never, never even contemplate using. But if that company were to launch a line of organic products, I might reconsider. Because they have the ability, they have the budgets, to get the word out. And at the end of the day, aren’t we trying to get the word out?

Joe: Yeah. We’re trying to inspire gardeners and get the word out and to do it more ethically and environmentally-responsible. I am.

Paul: It’s a very complicated issue.

Joe: Yes.

 

GardenFarm produce

Some GardenFarm harvest during a day of filming. Paul is an avid chef and was full of ideas for all these beautiful crops.

 

Paul: Okay. But I think consumers of all media, I mean – watch a movie or a television show, and it’s obvious that they don’t even hide the fact that it’s an Apple computer or a Dell computer. There’s a Coca-Cola can sitting in the shot. There are some that are so blatant – where Toyota is a sponsor, and they start tight on a Toyota logo on a car and come out to the host, you know. So, I think people are a little more forgiving. I still find it somewhat offensive when I see that kind of stuff, but I grew up in that “no product placement” era. And that’s all changing, and we’ve got to change too.

Joe: Yeah. Yeah. No, every opportunity these days, it seems, to monetize the product any which way they can. However you see it.

Paul: And I mean, people have to make a living, and this has opened up so many doors for so many people. This being the digital world that we’re going to have to struggle through it. Some of it’s going to go the wayside, and some of it’s not.

Joe: Yeah, I struggle with it because I had the opportunity to work with a lot of other companies and raise a lot more money to put into the show, which I don’t do. I don’t, because I don’t support the origin or I don’t support the parent company, for example. And if you trace it back, are you taking money from the devil, so to speak?

Paul: Right.

Joe: And it is a struggle. It’s a real struggle, because at the same time, you’re having your underwriters drop off. More underwriters that would be potential supporters of your show have moved to digital only, and you’ve lost them as a broadcast supporter. Where’s the viability and sustainability of the show? You need the money.

Paul: It’s gone. It’s gone. The show’s over.

Joe: Yeah. So, it’s food for thought. And if you’re listening out there, and you have thoughts on that – chime in on the show notes page, because I’d love to hear your comments as well. It’s a touchy issue. Certainly, I haven’t made a shift in that direction, but I am interested in your thoughts. Because – it’s an evolving world. Not that I’m about to change or will be changing, but it’s just worth a conversation.

And to bring somebody like Paul James in – who has been around the industry for a very long time and highly respected and very intelligent and a thinker – it’s great to get his perspective too, and it’s just a real fortuitous opportunity for him to be here to share his thoughts with us as well. So, do chime in. We’d love to hear from you.

So Paul, on that topic though, any other thoughts about how monetization is changing and the thoughts behind it?

Paul: Oh goodness.

Joe: Yeah.

Paul: Yeah. I think a lot of it is – when you have companies like Subaru, for instance, that acknowledge the value of underwriting your show. We need more of those kinds of companies to realize; because in the grand scheme of things if you look at the advertising budget of, say, a State Farm, what you’re asking for in terms of underwriting is a pittance. I mean, it doesn’t amount to anything. It won’t even show up on the bottom line anywhere.

Joe: Exactly.

Paul: So yeah, we just need more companies to realize that gardeners are people who drive cars and own homes and buy insurance and use toilet paper. I mean, they’re just like anybody else.

Joe: Yeah, and why not want to show that you support a show like Growing a Greener World, for example, that’s all about people doing good things for the planet through environmental stewardship and healthy lifestyles. Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Well, speaking of that, let’s just divert from that. That was a great conversation, that part, Paul. But let’s just wrap this up. I know that I wanted to kind of keep this tight and short, because we’re on a tight schedule today.

But let’s just learn a couple of quick things about you. How do you stay connected with your gardening fans and the public these days? I mean, you had that huge following. You still have that huge following, but they can’t turn on the television and watch you anymore. They can’t stick in that Beta tape. But you know, how do you keep in touch these days?

Paul: I don’t keep in touch very much, and I miss it. Believe me, I mean, fans were for me like the ultimate reason why I did what I did; because they showed so much appreciation and they were so compassionate about watching the show and the gardening efforts and stuff. But there just comes a time where you put it all to bed, and you move on. And that’s kind of what I’ve done.

Joe: Yeah.

Paul: So, yeah, I miss it. I mean, this last day and a half with you, it really was amazing. Because like you said, I hadn’t been out in the field in so long, but I had a blast. I miss it, but I don’t miss it enough to where I would ever contemplate doing a show again, I don’t think. Besides, who would want it?

Joe: I would. My hand is raised! But you’re still out there speaking some, yeah?

Paul: I am speaking some, and I’m spending a lot of time at a buddy of mine’s nursery, Southwood Landscape and Garden Center in Tulsa. I write a weekly blog, and I do get people from all over commenting on the blog. So, I’ll get a question from Connecticut, and I’ll get a question from Oregon. And so, I still reach out to people, but not in the way that I once did, by any means.

Joe: But you’re still gardening at home.

Paul: Oh, absolutely. All the time.

Joe: Yeah, and then harvesting that and enjoying a lot of time in the kitchen too. You’re a huge cook.

Paul: Yeah. Well, I’m not sure what you mean by that. I’m not that …

Joe: Not huge in size.

Paul: I mean, I’ve gained a little weight, but no, I’m a very passionate cook. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen.

Joe: We’ve talked a lot since you’ve been here about food. Walking around the garden – every couple of steps, you’re telling me about a new recipe or have I ever fried the blossoms off the squash plants and what to do with the homemade ricotta cheese. Oh, my gosh.

Paul: Yeah. It’s funny. Some people count sheep at night to go to sleep. I plan my menus, and I love it. I mean, because I’ll map out kind of a general idea – the menu itself. I love to do thematic dishes. So, if it’s Italian, then it’s going to be 100% Italian. Then, you have to determine is it going to be southern or northern Italian? Then, you have to match the wines with the meal. So I go through that, and then, that leads me to how many stops I have to make to get all the ingredients I need to pull it off.

I love entertaining. Entertaining in the home is just something – my family, the kids. We all get together every Sunday and have a family meal, and I have grandkids now. It’s a fabulous opportunity to just be with family. My daughter is in New York, so she doesn’t get to join us as often. We connect with her now and then, and my wife and I are running up to see her soon. And we’re all getting together in Santa Fe here soon for a family vacation. So, yeah, the kitchen. I love it. I like fly fishing. I play guitar.

Joe: Yeah, you do.

Paul: Almost every day.

Joe: And you read a lot. You’re a big reader.

Paul: I read a lot. Yeah, I go through a lot of books.

Joe: When I met you at the airport – walking off, and you had a nice book in your hand.

Paul: Yeah, that was the history of the Vandals. Ancient Scandinavian Germanic tribe that slaughtered people all over in their way to finally settling in North Africa – from which we get the term “vandalism.”

Joe: There you go. Back to cooking for a second though. You do good things with your cooking. Not only do you feed your family with a great meal, and I love that excitement.

I know I can relate to that. When you talk about laying in bed at night wide awake, thinking about the next day and what you’re going to do and how you’re going to prepare it – I used to think, before I really did it as a living. I mean, gardening is my avocation and my vocation. So, I love it as much today as I always have, and I love it more tomorrow than today.

That’s all good, but I remember always laying in bed at night on a Friday night thinking about everything that I was going to get to do on Saturday morning. I would be up before dawn, ready to hit the ground, and I’d spend the whole time out there. So, I totally get that. But with your cooking – in addition to serving your family – you do really good things to serve the community too with your charitable endeavors.

Paul: Yes. It just worked out that I was able to offer my services to various charitable organizations and say, “Okay, I’ll cook for 10 and I’ll pair the wines. You select the cuisine you prefer.” and people pay. I mean, one night I raised $18,000 on three dinners. And you know, it’s a blast to do, and it all goes to a worthy cause. You know, you got to give back.

Joe: You’ve got to give back.

Paul: When you’ve been fortunate, you’ve got to give back.

Joe: Yeah. Well, you’ve been giving back for a long time, and it’s just great to hear that you continue to do it. You gave back for the past two or three days with your time with me. Yeah, we had a good time. But I know it was time away from your family, and we worked you really hard. But I just want to say thank you, because it’s a real honor for you to come to my home.

I wanted to come to your place and hang out with you there. But when you wanted to come here, it was like, “Oh my gosh. Now what do I do?” The pressure’s on, but it has been a memory I’ll never forget. It’s been a blast and an honor for you to be here and so much fun. It’s what I call an “etched memory,” and there aren’t very many of those in a lifetime.

Paul: And I’ll share it with you. It was my pleasure.

Joe: Thank you.

Ok – It’s your turn. As I mentioned, I would love to hear your thoughts about the trend of gardening content moving from broadcast television into the digital world – streaming online. I hope you’ll share your comments below. I’d also love to hear some of your favorite memories of watching gardening television – whether it’s from Gardening by the Yard, Growing a Greener World or another favorite. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

Links & Resources

Episode 057: What Happened to the G in HGTV?

Episode 065:Tips For Reducing Garden Overwhelm, With Margaret Roach

Episode 090: Catching up with Paul James, Superstar of HGTV’s Gardening by the Yard

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Growing a Greener World®

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Southwood Landscape and Garden Center

National Pesticide Information Center: Malathion

Rain Bird®– Podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com

Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs – Podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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