Network Personality Discusses Blog Cabin and the Finer Points of Doing It Yourself on TV
I’ll be the first to admit that when I recently heard about a new television series called Blog Cabin, I had very little idea what the show or its host channel, DIY Network, was. Earlier this year, the general public was given the opportunity to visit the DIY Network’s Web site in order to vote on and select thirteen design specifics for a cabin that would be custom-built in the Great Smoky Mountains under the knowledgeable eyes of assorted DIY expert personalities. The entire process is captured in the currently airing first season of Blog Cabin, hosted by carpenter Amy Devers. The real kicker, however, is the sweepstakes that interested U.S. residents can enter right now for a chance to win that blog cabin to keep as their very own vacation home. If you haven’t submitted your details yet, you have until October 1 to do so.
Last week, I received an opportunity of my own to interview one of the DIY personalities scheduled to complete a portion of the Blog Cabin project related to their area of expertise. Ahmed Hassan, a professional landscape gardener based in California, has appeared on both DIY and its more well-known sister network HGTV. At HGTV, he participated in the Landscape Smart! series, and he currently hosts the popular The Dirt On… at DIY. During our conversation, it was very clear that the DIY Network showcases professionals who are adept at engaging audiences while educating them at the same time—even people like me, who normally wouldn’t gravitate towards TV focused on home-improvement or do-it-yourself projects. So, now, here’s the chat with Hassan that told me more than I thought I’d ever know about doing things myself and getting on TV for it, building cabins with outdoor fireplaces in the mountains, and missing out on the obviously most-excellent DIY Network.
QUESTION: I have to let you know right off that I don’t get the Do It Yourself Network in my area, although its sister network HGTV is a part of my cable package. There are also probably a number of people who do get DIY, but don’t realize it. How would you describe the DIY network to people like me, who’ve never had the chance to watch? What’s the purpose or theme of the network?
Ahmed Hassan: First of all, I like to tell people DIY is related to HGTV. It’s like we are the little sister, and they are the big sister. HGTV is the network people have heard of. It is a common household name. DIY, I find, a third of the people I mention it to are familiar with the Do It Yourself Network. I was talking to a guy about this today—the people that are out there looking and working a little bit guided [by] information [on] how to do things themselves, that is the nature of who they are. These people seem to be familiar with the DIY network. Of course, it helps if they can get it in their area. I know certain cable companies don’t offer DIY yet. What I describe DIY as is it’s similar to HGTV, except we take a little bit more time on the educational side. We educate people on how to do these things: how you go about developing this, creating that, designing this, or building that. That’s why the network is really right up my alley; because I’m really in love with teaching something that I am interested in and passionate about.
QUESTION: Can you tell me a bit about how you became professionally involved in landscape gardening? I’ve read your online profile on the DIY Web site, but how would you describe your path to “landscape and gardening glory”?
Ahmed Hassan: I’ve grown up in landscape gardening. My dad was a landscape gardener. I surpassed my dad and his knowledge a long time ago. [Laughs] That’s really where my love for it started: being outside, being able to utilize many tools, work with my hands similar to playing with my hands as a child, and building and creating and fixing things. I’m making them look better. It was about cleaning up the yard, mowing the grass, and trimming the hedges, and [doing] the maintenance chores—- I grew up in the time when kids actually did chores. [Laughs] And I got a lot of praise for it. I was doing gardening work, making the house look good, and my parents would come out and give me a lot of praise for that: one, because they didn’t have to ask me to do that, and, two, [because] I was getting work done.
I praise my children. When I come home and my son shows me that his room is clean, he helped to do this or he helped to do that, that’s how I kind of got into it. It kind of just snowballed from there. Once I found out I could actually make money doing this, and I could make even more money if I educated myself and could talk the talk, then I started going the educational route—horticulture and other things more serious.
QUESTION: I love the concept of Design Star on HGTV, where competitors come on the show, do their thing, and then win their own TV show if they beat all of the competition. The selection process is pretty straightforward. But how does someone land a job hosting television programs on DIY? Did you go to a casting call, or were you contacted directly? Did somebody recommend you? How did you get the gig?
Ahmed Hassan: [Laughs] Let me tell you how I did it. I started off doing a few shows for HGTV. I was featured as the landscaper or the contractor. Basically, I was doing similar to what I’m doing now. I wasn’t hosting; I was being featured as a specialist or the contractor. And from meeting the producers, and from learning the difference from what I do in reality—which is doing work for people—and the reality of what we need for TV, and from the producers seeing that I am the person that can talk about what I’m doing and enjoy talking about what I’m doing and actually know what I am doing. [Laughs] It was like a sure fit.
I got a lot of love from the producers for every show I had done for HGTV. When you get love from producers what it means is when they move on throughout their career and they move to different networks or they work for different network companies and people are looking for landscape talent in my situation, people remember you, people remember your name. I got calls from several producers several different times for different kinds of shows, some landscaping, some home improvement. It was mainly because I think I impressed them, for lack of a better word.
Just like on my other show, I featured specialists in the field, and on the current show we are shooting that will air next year called Yard Crafters, I am working with other landscapers. I work with a different group of people each show. I get to see and my producers get to see who works well, who is easy to work with, to communicate with. It’s all these other things that go into the whole package. And, of course, know what you are doing and the related areas. That says he’ll be great on TV, he’s fun to watch, he knows what he’s doing, she understands what she’s doing, she’s articulate, she does well for all these different steps. It’s kind of a combo package as opposed to being a great landscaper. But, you hate to talk to the camera when you’re not conveying your information and giving that to other people. It takes an overall package. [Laughs]
QUESTION: You’ve also done duty on HGTV with the Landscape Smart! series. What’s the difference between doing a show on HGTV and doing one on DIY?
Ahmed Hassan: On DIY we want to talk a little bit more [about] the exact information. DIY is very much an educational entertainment network, where I think HGTV is more than entertainment. It’s kind of passive—[one is] able to enjoy and look and see, and maybe it stimulates thoughts and ideas. At DIY, we try to take it one step further and give you a little bit more information and allow you to go on the Web site and get even more.
The networks are very similar. DIY is a little bit more on the educational side of it. I am trying to take it one step further than the [show] that I did before Landscape Smart! because I was not the host of the show; I did not do the voiceover for the show. I just had to be present and play my role very well, whereas hosting the show, I have to not only play my role very well, I have to help anybody else on the show with me and on the set, give them the word and pump them in the right direction, and nudge them in the right direction so that the show can move forward. We call that carrying the show. I have to carry the show. I have to sometimes stimulate the energy to bring it up. I have to bring it down. [Laughs] I have to give it direction, and I have to help other people to shine and look good because I was in their position at one time.
Actually, you are in control there.
Ahmed Hassan: Right. One of the things hosts have to do, we have to make people feel comfortable in front of the cameras, because you can have someone who has more personality than three people put together, and you put them in front of a camera and, all of a sudden, they don’t know what to do, they don’t know what to say. Their face is straight, and you don’t typically sit down to watch TV with people like that. [Laughs] So, sometimes I have to create camaraderie and comfortability [so] that whomever I’m talking with is focused on me and dealing with me and other interactions, and all the camera is there to do is just to capture that.
QUESTION: Moving on to the very interesting Blog Cabin, which incorporates the input of literally thousands of people, from the experts who are constructing everything to the general public who chose the ultimate design components by voting and commenting. How did the show come into existence?
Ahmed Hassan: That is not a question for me. That is over my head. [Laughs] The concept of Blog Cabin, that’s a concept over my head. I had nothing to do with that. I was invited to be a part of Blog Cabin. Blog Cabin was about building, designing, the developmental process, and letting the viewers be a part of that, and designing this beautiful cabin outside. It’s still under construction, though. [Laughs] We gotta do something with the landscaping.
I just came over to be part of this process. And the difference with the landscaping and the rest of the house is the viewers chose the outdoor fireplace. So, that was something they selected. I’m sure the paving surface in front was also selected. That’s about it. The rest, I got together with Amy [DIY on-air personality Amy Matthews] and the crew and decided what we want to do in a situation, or how we need to make the cabin fit in with the rest of the environment, and that will be landscaping.
We don’t take a downtown Los Angeles landscape and stick it in the Smoky Mountains around this cabin. It wouldn’t make sense. So, what I did was jumped on a plane and went out there and helped look at the overall space as opposed to looking at it online. We had pictures—looked at the space, looked at the natural resources there on the property, on-site. And then we just came up a simple landscape because, in essence, if you have a cabin in the mountains, you just want a simple landscape. This is not supposed to be a high-maintenance English garden around this cabin.
It was a lot of fun for me because you never know what you are going to get in the natural environment. We never knew what they handed away, what was there before, what was still available. So, we came up with a very simple design. We basically just created a new hardscaped accessible area. We put flagstone in. We had to get access from the top, where the front door to the bottom storage area was, where the basement is. So, we built some steps, and that was a tedious and arduous and very labor-intensive project. But, I had some landscapers up there, and they wouldn’t stop, and I wouldn’t stop ’til it was done. And we just put a splattering of plants that do well in the area.
And that’s why I usually rely on other landscapers in that area to help me out, because I’m a Californian gardener. [Laughs] So, we talk about plants, and I understand plants, and they tell me what goes well in the area. And I go with them, and we just kind of collaborate on where things should go and keep it simple. The whole thing was just keep it simple because this is just a vacation getaway home. This is not a garden that someone is going to be out there maintaining all the time because you’ll be going up there for a little relaxation, a little getaway. So, that in itself told us what we needed to do. So, that was cool.
QUESTION: If I’m not mistaken, you make your grand contribution to Blog Cabin in the twelfth episode, “Sizzling Landscapes.” You’ll be overseeing the construction of an outdoor fireplace. I’m giving away my urban roots now, but please tell me—because I’m dying to know—what the difference is between an indoor fireplace and an outdoor fireplace, besides the obvious fact that one’s outside and the other’s not.
Ahmed Hassan: I think you just said it. You said it in your question. One is outdoors, and one is indoors. [Laughs] This is a standalone fireplace; this is a fireplace unto itself, where you have to walk out of the house, across a patio, and there’s a fire pit or grill. This is a fireplace that stands alone, and it’s outdoors, one step above a fire pit, a pit you throw newspapers or logs, charcoal in. A fireplace may be gas or a little more personalized, refined.
Why do you think a homeowner would want a fireplace outside?
Ahmed Hassan: That is the beauty of being a landscaper. There are people with money and who want it all: all the plants and flowers that attract the hummingbirds, and cut flowers, scented things in the garden, things to hang out around warm furniture, shade above and sunny spots to bathe in, fire when it’s cold and cool when it’s warm. If you can’t afford it, you dig a hole and make a fire pit or you have a fireplace. The viewers wanted a fireplace.
QUESTION: I’m also eager to know why DIY Network is giving the blog cabin away in a sweepstakes. What’s the rationalization for that decision? What’s the network getting out of doing that?
Ahmed Hassan: First of all, it’s a fun thing, it’s a giveaway. When things are fun and prizes are significant, I think they get better publicity in play. We build a cabin. Who is going to take it? [Laughs] It’s in the desert, not in Los Angeles. [Laughs] It only made sense that we make it part of something, that we give it away. That the general public— The viewers were the ones able to construct it. So, hey, the viewers should be able to figure out who gets it. And the only way to do that is to raffle it off like a sweepstakes. So, they couldn’t figure out what else to do with it. [The person who gets it] couldn’t be anyone from the network. They would be excluded [because] that wouldn’t be fair. So, we build it, what do we do with it? Let’s give it away. [Laughs]
And the network gets publicity for that.
Ahmed Hassan: It gets publicity. It changes someone’s life in a good way. It’s just a nice thing. It makes you feel good—makes the person getting it feel really good. [Laughs]
QUESTION: Based on ratings and viewer response so far, do you think there will be another season of Blog Cabin, or is this a one-shot deal?
Ahmed Hassan: I think so. I’m expecting that there will be. I just don’t know if it will be a cabin. It may be a beach house. It may be a lithograph… [Laughs] …a little cottage, a house. I think it will be something similar; yet, I believe it will involve something else. I don’t think it will be a cabin. I definitely think it will be something else that will be developed, designed, and implemented, and more than likely given away.
Blog Cabin currently airs Thursdays on the DIY Network at 9pm and 9:30pm EST
Ahmed Hassan and Blog Cabin photos courtesy of the DIY Network