Real estate TV shows are all the rage, and they're here to stay even if the market cools
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FLIP ALL THOSE PIN' SHOWS
Real estate TV shows are all the rage, and they're here to stay even if the market cools
Three years ago the television network A&E launched a show called Flip This House. Not to be outdone, rival network TLC brought us Flip That House. Both shows were about the trials and tribulations of buying a home, renovating it and selling it (ideally) for a tidy profit. Both were instant successes. What happened next might best be described as a home and real estate TV gold rush. Since This and That, housing shows have hit the tube about as quickly as television executives can dream up their uninspired titles: The Big Flip, Flipping Out, Flipping House, Property Ladder, Property Virgins, The Real
Deal, House Hunters, and the list goes on.
Flipping houses is now just one sub-genre of the sprawling realm of real estate television-some shows are about buying houses, others are about renovating or decorating, and many, like the popular Canadian show Holmes on Homes, focus on fixing the many things that can (and invariably do) go horribly wrong for homeowners. For networks, many of the shows have been surprise ratings bonanzas (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is the 15th most popular show in the U.S. this year), and specialty channels now thrive on the new programming. HGTV Canada has seen its viewer numbers jump 40 per cent in the past two years thanks to property, renovation and design shows, says Anna Gecan, the channel’s vice-president of content. Scan the station’s program guide and it becomes apparent just how superfluous the “Garden” in HGTV has become.
Not surprisingly, this orgy of real estate TV has closely paralleled the final euphoric years of North America’s manic housing boom—a period in which home ownership has never been more accessible, and in which countless amateurs rushed into the real estate game in the hope of making a quick buck. But even as the housing market collapses in the U.S. (and cools dramatically in Canada), there’s
no evidence the home television bubble is about to burst too. In fact, it seems to be only growing, latching on to new trends and using the bad times as yet more fodder for our entertainment. If nothing else, the boom has taught television executives just how much drama can really be mined from the subject of home ownership.
Today's real estate television shows might seem seizure-inducing to anyone more attuned to the days of This Old House. The PBS program from the 1980s—described by some as the Masterpiece Theatre of home television—followed for an entire season the painstaking renovation of one old New Eng-
land home. It wasn’t as boring as watching paint dry; it actually involved watching paint dry. But amidst host Bob Vila’s chatter, the show’s popularity still hinged on the fact that there was an undercurrent of drama. Oodles of money was being spent on the house, and sometimes bad things happened.
The raw material for good TV was all there. “It’s classic storytelling,” says Gecan, of real estate and renovation television. “There’s often a problem, a goal, along the way there are the evil forces of time, money, and things breaking down, against the good forces of someone like [Mike] Holmes, who’s the clas sic hero, who saves the day in the end with a band of tradesmen.”
Along with their hero and villain set-ups, what today’s shows have perfected is packaging. “Faster and louder” is the mantra, explains Robert Thompson, the director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television. The educational value has been dialled back, and in its place primetime glitz has been injected. From This Old House, fast-forward to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, where an entire home is razed
and rebuilt for one hard-luck family in a single, emotional hour-long program. For the viewer, these kinds of programs present an almost irresistible mix of what the industry calls “house porn” and house horror story. There are the beautiful homes and the expensive building materials (marble countertops, stainless steel appliances, imported hardwoods). And then there are the disasters, from sketchy contractors to out-of-control budgets and anything else that provides the audience with a “thankGod-it’s-not-happening-to-me” feeling. Even viewers facing their own housing crises can be sucked in for a much-needed escape from reality, says Thompson. “It’s possible if you’ve just been kicked out of your house and just been foreclosed upon you may not want to watch Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. On the other hand, it might be exactly what you want to watch.”
Still, the appeal of home programs may be more deeply rooted than their entertainment value would suggest. The shows actually speak directly to the American psyche, suggests Thompson. North American history is composed of great waves of immigration, “which is really all about buying into the notion of reinventing yourself, coming from the Old World to the New World, annihilating your history for something completely different,” he says. “When so much of our national soul is about this idea that you can always make the big change, any of these shows about reno-
vation has a certain appeal to it that’s very deep in our hearts.”
Bryan Baeumler is the host ofashow called Disaster DIY, in which he swoops in to save deluded homeowners from their own bungled renovation projects. Baeumler, who owns a construction company in Toronto, has the burly look of a handyman, but he also oozes charm and is quick with a joke—qualities that make him the perfect reno-TV host.
teases clumsy homeowners, but never cruelly. His summation of the show: “It’s not a tear-jerker about a family in dire straits. It’s about ‘you bonehead, look what you did.’ ” In one episode, Baeumler sniffs at a homeowner’s choice of wallpaper as he reluctantly offers to show him how to put it up. “Have you ever wallpapered before?” he asks the man.
“Well you’re in luck. I read the book last night,” he quips.
The irony of his show is that many of the
he encounters almost certainly found the urge to tinker with their homes watching renovation television. The new urban generation of Canadians hasn’t inherited any real hands-on building skills, says Baeumler, but it has nevertheless been egged on by a culture of big-box hardware stores, the Internet, and television into thinking they can do the job, he explains, from the office of his construction company, Baeumler Quality Construction and Renovations. It all speaks to not only the power of these shows, but also their ability to lead viewers astray (especially those who have a hard time separating the entertainment
from the reality). Disaster DIY may have more educational value than the typical show, but Baeumler is realistic about how much he can accomplish onscreen and how much you’re going to learn from it. “People say, ‘We watch your show and it didn’t look that hard.’ Well, back out the commercials and the intro and you see probably 15 minutes of actual work. Everything looks easy on TV.”
Expect to see more of Baeumler in coming months.
His brand of do-it-yourself reno show is precisely what
television executives are on the lookout for these days. Networks closely watch trends in the housing market, and problems there suggest it’s time to focus on shows aimed at getting more value out of your current home rather than on buying and selling, says Gecan. Indeed, problems in the housing market don’t necessarily mean serious problems in the renovation industry, which while slowing is still big business. When things are good,
people buy, sell and flip, and when they’re bad, they renovate, says Baeumler. Last year, spending on renovations in Canada totalled about $37 billion, a nearly 10 per cent increase from the previous year. In the U.S., the remodelling industry is a behemoth, worth almost $300 billion a year, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard
University. The industry is expected to slow, says a study from the centre, but not as dramatically as the housing market, thanks to an aging housing stock in need of upgrades and demographic changes that suggest the number of households will grow over the next decade.
And even if the market tanks and buyers become scarce, don’t worry about missing your fix of Flip This and Flip That House. Bad news for flippers isn’t necessarily bad news for television. “We love when in the Big Flip they open up the wall and there’s a mass of termites or they haven’t done the structural assessment and the house is sagging. Those are key dramatic moments and it’s why people like watching,” says Gecan. Clearly, the marketers at A&E in charge of Flip This House see the housing crunch as just another of those dramatic moments. “Flipping houses is the most tried-and-true way to make a fortune in real estate,” says the show’s website, “but with the current slump in the housing market, the casts... are facing hard truths and real panic as they return for a fourth season.” M
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