It turned out these were two different shows, and with every “pain of U.S. housing slump” headline, the inventory of real estate entertainment looked a little more glutty. It made me ponder this curious genre’s fate. Like sunny sellers’ agents, television executives and producers assured me that such shows had a post-housing-bubble future that was already in the works. I looked for signs of what that might mean as I watched, and pondered just what it was I was tuning in to see.
HOW TO EXPRESS THE SELF
In the distant world of 1980, episodes of “This Old House” began appearing nationally on PBS stations, documenting the restoration of an 1860 Victorian in Boston. Long, calm, detailed and earnest, the project carried the warm glow of education and New England do-goodism. In time, “This Old House” became a franchise (multiple shows, books, a magazine); its original star, a builder named Bob Vila, left in a dispute over endorsement deals and became a brand unto himself. The Thoughtful Improvement ethic — or at least the phrase “do it yourself” — became a trendy idea.
Entertainment is supposed to be better in the hundreds-of-channels present than it was in 1980, but of course new places for expressing ideas do not guarantee new ideas. The upshot is that what used to be a concept for a show is now the basis for a genre, in the form of dozens of shows, entire channels, a category. The HGTV channel went on the air in 1994 and is now in more than 91 million homes; it’s owned by Scripps Networks (which also owns DIY Network, Food Network and Fine Living). HGTV is a soft, warm, pleasant place where nice ladies make quilts during the day and nice young couples redecorate at night and lots of “tips” are shared. Here the home is an expression of the self: Michael Dingley, senior vice president for programming and content strategy, says the channel aims to “provide ideas and inspiration, to make the home better.” He continues, “And I don’t mean home as in the sense of four walls, but also home in a more emotional kind of way, more abstract.”
In 1999, the channel started “House Hunters,” which is now on five nights a week and is among its most popular shows. On each episode, the hostess, a genial automaton called Suzanne Whang — always shown wandering through some anonymous suburban environment — gives us a chipper sketch of the house hunter and his or her desires (the software engineer seeking a shorter commute, the single mom looking for space, the tedious young English prof who wants to have poets over more often, etc.) and three available choices. She remains in her undisclosed location as we follow the hunter through the houses, scrutinizing pros and cons, while canned music plays just audibly enough to subtly suggest that something is happening. The episodes conclude with a decision, and usually a coda about how it all worked out perfectly.
In part, “House Hunters” simply recreates the way that property functions as entertainment in the real world: like scanning the real estate pages for new listings and going to open houses, it’s a part of the mildly voyeuristic pastime of “seeing what’s out there,” of taking a peek at how other people live, a crash course on the market in Chicago or Atlanta or elsewhere.
Along with HGTV’s home design shows, Dingley maintains, such programming demystifies property, and has “enlightened and empowered consumers.” He uses the phrase “relevant entertainment.” On “House Hunters” you may learn that $379K gets you a surprisingly nice 3 BR, 2000 SF, 1927 Craftsman in Seattle. But by and large these happy families are all the same: enlightened and empowered to congratulate themselves for having the same instinct for which wallpaper is “dated” and which mantle has “a lot of character” that everybody on all the other shows has.
Meanwhile, much is left out. Buyer’s remorse, for instance, never materializes. Almost all of the property shows avoid one of the screaming issues of real-life real estate, which is the neighborhood. No one mentions crime statistics, lousy school systems or proximity to homeless shelters or Superfund sites. In an episode of “House Hunters,” a cute young New Jersey couple move to the shore, specifically to Asbury Park, which Whang brightly calls “a majestic boardwalk town.” Have you ever been to Asbury Park? She adds that the place was made famous by the songs of Bruce Springsteen, and that’s true. For instance, it inspired “My City of Ruins.”
HGTV, Dingley explains, is not a “mean-spirited” place. “We’re not a snarky, mean, nasty brand.” Perhaps the channel offers shelter from gloomy homeowner news. “For most folks, a home is not only the most expensive investment in their lives, it’s also the most personal,” he says, and a rockier housing market sharpens the viewers’ interest in “making the right, prudent decision.” That said, its “relevant” programming has been expanding to encompass a bit more of the things that have dominated property entertainment on those networks that are a little less concerned about how mean-spiritedness might affect the brand: namely, money and drama.
HOW TO BE GREEDIER
The American entertainment consumer surely seeks enlightenment on matters of taste and style, but also on that other key aspect of the self, net worth. The soaring stock market of the late 1990s made CNBC almost as popular as CNN, supposedly because we’d become an enlightened and empowered nation of investors, but really because bull market geniuses loved watching a game they never seemed to lose. Tanking markets cleared up the difference between personal finance and rollicking fun, and CNBC’s viewership retreated to niche levels. The Thoughtful Improvement ethic of “This Old House” and the Something for Nothing ethic of Nasdaq-as-sporting-event come together in the form of the flip shows. Don’t make a home, don’t invest in a house — flip a property: how much money, how fast, for how little effort, can be extracted from a shabby, crumbling residence? Booyah! — as CNBC throwback Jim Cramer might shout — now you’ve got something.
TLC has included home-related programming since 1997 (starting with Bob Vila’s post-“This Old House” project, “Bob Vila’s Home Again”). And its show “Trading Spaces” — in which neighbors redecorate each other’s homes — was a home-entertainment milestone. The network began airing “Flip That House” in 2005. Every half-hour episode features a different “flipper,” some experienced, some with no particular background in real estate or construction but with an interest in what (on television at least) sounds like easy money. We learn the purchase price, tour the generally ramshackle property, and listen to an overview of planned updates and renovations. Usually a demolition montage follows: carpets ripped out, off-trend cabinetry smashed to pieces with a sledgehammer. Episodes involving experienced flippers tend to go rather smoothly, and I suppose the instructional payoff for the viewer comes in the form of tips. These generally involve granite countertops, Brazilian cherry wood floors, travertine tile. Often, the tips are communicated in the form of orders issued to the stoic head of some all-Hispanic construction crew, who simply nods.
The profit motive obliterates home-ness and all other topics. An episode involving a guy named Hay, who is “in the entertainment industry,” and restores houses in the area once known as South Central Los Angeles so he can rent them, begins: “The 1992 riots tore the city apart. But now it’s become an attractive destination for house flippers, hoping to turn their property into profit.” He goes over budget, and we learn to use angled paint brushes. When he’s done, the real estate agent says he can get $1,600 a month for the place.
The vague idea of learning from the pros animates “Flip That House” rival “Flip This House,” which runs on A&E. “We’re constantly looking to evolve the shelter brand,” executive producer Michael Morrison informs me. “And one of the trends in real estate, obviously, is house flipping.” “Flip This House” also made its debut in 2005, and rather than an endless series of flippers, revolves around recurring sets of real estate pros. The first season followed Trademark Properties, based near Charleston, S. C. and run by Richard C. Davis. The second season has focused on two different realty teams, one in San Antonio and one in Atlanta. “Flip This House” episodes each last an hour, and what’s added to the mix of tips are basic elements of drama. Most notably, the stars get more full-fledged character treatment.
The San Antonio shows are the serialized adventures of Armando and David Montelongo, who are brothers, and their wives. The series works more because the people happen to be entertaining than because they happen to work in real estate. Armando in particular has just the sort of polarizing charisma that can carry a show. A charming jerk, he lowballs subcontractors, bullies an unpaid intern and taunts his wife with a fistful of roaches grabbed from the kitchen of one nasty property he has acquired, pausing now and again to reflect on the all-American success story of his life so far.
In one episode, for no obvious reason, the brothers and their wives compete, flipping two houses at once to see who can make more money. By the time girls in bikinis arrive to distract one team’s subcontractors with free beer, the Enlightened Improvement ethic has been reduced to occasional text popping up on the screen making never-substantiated assertions about how much “value” a new fence or windows supposedly add to the final sales price.
Davis of Trademark Properties will be back on television soon enough, as it happens, with a new show over on TLC. It’s called “The Real Deal,” and it will, as he describes it, be firmly about the business of real estate. Davis is a creature relatively rare in entertainment but commonplace in real life: The Southern hustler, who doesn’t care what slow-witted stereotypes you read into his accent as long as he gets your money. Davis — still involved in a lawsuit against A&E that he filed after the channel decided to use those other groups in the second season of “Flip This House” — sounds flat-out thrilled about the end of the housing bubble.
Seven years ago, real estate was dominated by “A players” like him. Eventually, “you got to the point where you got your F players in the game—and making money!” Now that that’s over, “it becomes survival of the fittest, and cash becomes king,” he says, and the banks start telling loan-seeking F players to go back to their day jobs. He believes that this will be good not only for Trademark, but for his show. “Flip This House,” he says, ignored the important point that the key to his business isn’t mere remodeling prowess; it’s knowing how to find properties that are a bargain to begin with. The premise of his show is that he is an inspiring, visionary entrepreneur, and a down market will only make that clearer. “That’s when I’ll entertain you the most,” he says. “My most dramatic deals are always in a down market. That’s when it gets really crazy, and really fun.”
HOW TO ENJOY THE MISFORTUNE OF OTHERS
Watching other people make money because they’re smarter than I am doesn’t actually sound like that much fun, but there’s little danger of it on another flip show on TLC that I found perversely gripping, “Property Ladder.” All reality shows rise and fall on casting, and despite the show-opening tease (“Want to make more money in a few months than you did last year?”), here the producers seem bent on finding “real estate rookies” capable of catastrophe. One episode involved lunkhead buddies who got interested in house-flipping through an infomercial. In another, a newly married couple more or less disintegrate over the course of an ill-fated, months-long flip fiasco. Shouting matches feature prominently in nearly every installment.
Like “Flip That House,” the show focuses on a different project every week. The twist is an expert named Kirsten Kemp (billed as a veteran house flipper, she also, somewhat curiously, happens to have a bit-part acting résumé that includes appearances on “JAG” and “Married With Children”), who shows up periodically to give advice and pass judgment. My favorite episode involved a Simi Valley couple who bought a “wrecked” and “abandoned” house for $435,000 and not only planned to flip it for $600,000 after putting in $50,000 worth of renovations over 10 weeks, but pledged to do so in an eco-friendly manner. “We’re really supporting the planet this way,” the wife cheerfully explains, wearing an unconvincing smile that stays frozen on her face through the many disasters that follow.
Kemp openly scoffs at the particulars of their budget and makes a face when told about plans for a solar panel. She tells them they’re better off putting French doors in the master bedroom — that way they will actually add some value. Perhaps what ensues can be characterized as advice. The smiling wife buys eco-trendy bamboo flooring but “violated her green ideals,” as the near-mocking narrator puts it, when tiles made from recycled material prove too expensive. They also blow off some “energy efficient” windows in favor of the French doors that Kemp suggested, and of course they give up on the solar panel scheme as time runs short and their spending balloons. And when Kemp returns toward the end of the show, they inform her (big smile from the wife here) that not only did they opt not to install air conditioning, but they’re going to sell the house themselves so they won’t have to pay a real estate agent’s fee.
Kemp is TV-attractive, articulate and informed, but her most fascinating quality is her two-faced snakiness. She hugs her amateur charges, softens her stern advice and raised eyebrows with compliments and smiles - and then, alone with the camera, coldly enumerates how they blew it. In this case, Simi Valley’s summer highs average 91 degrees, and the for-sale-by-owner approach just proves that in addition to being naive, the eco-flippers are greedy. It will end up costing them money, she announces. And indeed, the show closes with a montage of months passing with no offer; an end note says they finally went with a listing service, and found a buyer, after more than six months. Cackling on my sofa, I’m pleasantly blasé about where I stand in the property zeitgeist. Aside from inspirational business savvy or handy news you can use, here’s another thing that’s entertaining: schadenfreude.
HOW TO ESCAPE REALITY
Property shows seem so profoundly American — it is our manifest destiny to own a 4,000-square-foot place in a good school district within five years of obtaining a college degree — it’s a disappointment to learn that the contemporary property entertainment model is largely an import. “Hot Property,” which first aired on Channel 5 in Britain in 1997, involved a prospective home buyer looking at three houses. The original “Property Ladder” runs on Channel 4.
Fenton Bailey is one of the founders of World of Wonder Productions, which creates programming for both the American and British markets. He’s British, and he lives in Los Angeles. Not everything works in both markets. A World of Wonder show that aired in Britain, “Housebusters,” addressed the problems of various homeowners — can’t make friends in the neighborhood, can’t seem to save any money since moving — by bringing in supernatural types like a “geopathic stress” expert, an electromagnetics guy, a feng shui advocate, a psychic and even a witch. Americans, he says, seem uninterested in home solutions that are less tangible than, say, buying a plasma-screen television, and Bravo passed on a United States pilot.
But the markets also have much in common. The key to property drama, Bailey says, is the key to all drama: transformation. “Very little of what’s on television is about accepting who you are and being happy with it. The old you, the threadbare you — no one wants to know about that.” If anything, he says, the British housing market has been even more overheated than the United States market, and got that way earlier. And finally, he says, “The destiny of television is to put everything on television,” so housing shows had to happen at some point.
“Buildings and interiors have been only something the very rich can enjoy,” Bailey continues. “They formed an elite pastime that’s been absolutely democratized by television.” World of Wonder also happens to be responsible for “Million Dollar Listing,” which ran on Bravo last year and probably made real estate more entertaining than any other single show, not least because it took place in Malibu, a world well beyond the reach of most of the democratized audience.
Over the course of six episodes, “Million Dollar Listing” deconstructed transactions and failed transactions in astonishing detail, giving a more complete version of the harrowing mix of emotions and egos and half-truths of the property drama. Getting suitable access to so many buyers, sellers and agents consumes a great deal of time, and Bailey says the first season of “Million Dollar Listing” took nearly a year to complete; a second season is being cast now. Bailey doesn’t sound worried about what effect the housing slump might have on the show, and it’s easy to see why. “Million Dollar Listing” deals with falling property values by unfolding in the borderline freak show of high-dollar Southern California, with characters who make Armando Montelongo look like a cream puff as they whine and wheedle in the never-ending sunlight of this promised land. By now we are far from “This Old House,” where an earnest discussion of cabinet installation might last three or four minutes and include the phrase “medium density fiberboard with a thermofoil wrap.” The only practical bit that I picked up from “Million Dollar Listing” was the superiority of “whitewater” ocean views to regular old ocean views. You can’t get any further away from everyday reality without actually making things up.
“Many citizens set out to buy a house because of an indistinct yearning, for which an actual house was never the right solution to begin with and may only be a quick (and expensive) fix that briefly anchors and stabilizes them, never touches their deeper need, but puts them in the poorhouse anyway.” So observes Frank Bascombe, narrator of Richard Ford’s novel “The Lay of the Land.” Bascombe drifted into realty in Ford’s earlier novel “Independence Day,” and while he may have done so in order “to keep something finite and acceptably doable on my mind and not disappear,” he is perhaps the wisest observer of property drama we are likely to have.
The agony of property, for example, is rarely more visceral than in the long episode in “Independence Day” in which Bascombe deals with a Vermont couple whose problems will most likely not be solved by a new home in New Jersey. “The realty dreads,” in his view, are never about lost money or the wrong house, but “in the cold, unwelcome, built-in-America realization that we’re just like the other schmo, wishing his wishes, lusting his stunted lusts, quaking over his idiot frights and fantasies, all of us popped out from the same unchinkable mold.” Thus when Bascombe successfully leads clients “toward a feeling of finality and ultimate rightness,” he achieves an outcome that is “not poetry but generalized social good with a profit motive.”
Television, however, differs from literature in the following way. The dramatic shows, for all their tears and shouting matches, in the end, read as harmless, campy cartoons. It’s the happy shows full of smiles and high-fives — the ones that loudly promise us that you need not worry about unchinkable molds when you can consider how much airier the living room will feel if you simply move that sofa — where, every so often, thin cracks in the happy facade can reveal things wholly unintended.
One of HGTV’s newer hits, for instance, is the perfectly upbeat “Designed to Sell.” A relatively winning host named Clive introduces us to someone who is having trouble selling a home and brings in experts to improve things as much as possible for $2,000. One step in the process involves the homeowners watching a videotape of a real estate agent walking from room to room, enumerating what they’ve done wrong. The basic lessons recur over and over: reduce clutter, define the space, brighten up this bedroom, do something about the dated window treatments, and please, American house sellers, pack away your myriad collections of weird figurines immediately. What we learn, in other words, is that despite the supposed home-design revolution, you people have not gotten the point.
Clive and a rotating crew of design experts soften the blow by reminding the homeowners, and us, just what the point is: money. “More light, more space . . . more money,” one designer announces. Replace this “losing-money lime” color with a “money-making mushroom” hue, Clive advises, and “Top dollar!” he says, many times. So the homeowners shrug off the remarks about their grandmotherly decor by smiling and saying, for instance, “Ka-ching!’ Or in one episode, huddling with the design team and chanting, “One, two, three — money!”
A remarkably similar show called “Sell This House,” on A&E, stars Tanya Memme, a high-energy party girl type who favors plunging necklines and has no obvious skills, and a bulbous-muscled bear named Roger, identified as a “home design consultant.” In this version, the flummoxed homeowner listens to the snide, videotaped remarks of random prospective home buyers. The most crushing episode involved a faultlessly polite Southern woman whose wallpaper looked to be 31 years old for the simple reason that she had never stopped liking it. Other features of her long time home include shag carpeting, a mind-boggling menagerie of tchotckes and a mailbox done over to resemble a fish. The videotaped critiques are much what you’d expect, with the added insult of some ill-mannered oaf saying that the place “smells like old people.”
“I will admit,” this sweet woman tells Tanya Memme, “I did cry.” She knows full well that her things might seem idiosyncratic — but they are her things. And she cannot for the life of her see what difference that makes. “If they buy the house, there won’t be any of this stuff here,” she says, reasonably. “That was my version.”
Here we learn the ultimate lesson of these shows: You can look at a free-standing building wherein some persons reside, and you can spin house-or-home poetry out of that all day long. But at the end of that day, property is what it is. Your home can look like an expression of you, but your property needs to look like a Pottery Barn catalog. Your wallpaper decisions may have expressed your individuality when you made them, but you are not an individual anymore, and no one wants to think about you. Stop expressing yourself. This place you live needs to look, in fact, like the total obliteration of “you,” because selling property is about someone else’s dreams of self-expression and taste.
Tanya and Roger rip up the carpet and consign to storage every object that means anything to the nice Southern lady. When the show ends, Tanya brightly informs us that prospective buyers are giving it “a second look.” In other words, it hasn’t sold. One imagines the dignified and bewildered owner imprisoned there still, looking around at the catalog pages that have become, not so much her home, but merely the place where she lives.
This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, March 18, 2007.