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.”