HGTV’s Design Star returns without viewer vote but with new judges

One of my two favorite summer competition series, HGTV’s Design Star, returns tonight for its fourth season at 10 p.m. ET. Like Food Network’s Next Food Network Star, the competition awards its winner a show on the network, but for the first three seasons, HGTV’s version let the public select its new star. This year, they’ve taken that away, leaving the decision up to the judges. Viewers will get to vote, however, for someone to get their own online show.

Also new this season: Judges Cynthia Rowley and Martha McCully, who were pretty decent reality show judges, are out, replaced by former Trading Spaces designer Genevieve Gorder and Devine Design’s Candice Olson. Alas, the show retains the annoying editing of the judges’ deliberation, which excludes the names of the people they’re actually talking about, so their decision-making is never fully explained to viewers, which is totally dumb.

Also appearing this year will be a number of celebrities, including Kathy Griffin, whose spare room will be part of one of the challenges. Those challenges are always inventive and actually great tests of the designers’ skills, and unlike most competitions, they give their designers multiple days to complete them (although that never seems to decrease the pressure). If you missed the first three seasons, full episodes of all three seasons are on HGTV.com.

So why are there no more viewer votes? Let’s not forget last year’s controversy over the show’s gay bondage porn star and police officer Mikey Verdugo, who was told not to show up to the finale. Beyond that, in the first episode, one designer says she’s glad the decision will now be about skill rather than personality, although personality is a big reason as to why someone would tune into the winner’s show. But last year’s winner, Jennifer Betrand, has only done two specials for the network, although the Wichita Eagle reported that “Bertrand wants to start taping her show in the fall.”

Anyway, this season’s first episode is definitely as consistently strong as every previous season, starting with the now-traditional challenge that has the contestants designing their own living space. That house is an amazing Hollywood mansion that Frank Sinatra once lived in, and that has hosted both Mad Men and Marilyn Monroe’s final photo shoot. It’s a great setting for a great series. Here’s a preview:

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