A visit to the doctor’s or dentist’s office these days can be stressful, with the coronavirus still rampant and healthcare costs at all-time highs. Rest assured that the staff will keep you calm by running a continuous loop of HGTV shows on every TV in the waiting room. According to a recent article by Ian Parker in The New Yorker, surveys have long indicated that HGTV programs are the most uplifting, cheerful, and aspirational fare on cable TV.
I doubt that many architects watch HGTV, though certainly many interior designers do, and perhaps a few garden designers. Most viewers are women, but men do tune in. The Property Brothers are not the only bait offered by this channel, for many years among the top five cable networks. Apparently, however, HGTV is feeling the pinch of a slow economy and stiff competition from streaming services like Netflix and YouTube TV. They are considering tweaks to a formula that has reeled in millions of viewers since the early 2000s. (Tipsy House Hunting is in the offing, proving that the success of Drunk History wasn’t a fluke.)
Parker’s article examines that formula in great detail, noting both its cynical premises and the zeal with which producers and “talent” attack their projects. Recognizing that buying a home is among the most emotional, and generally positive, experiences in life, the Discovery Channel purchased HGTV about a decade ago and profited greatly from a steady stream of shows with the same basic outline. To wit: Pick a demographic and neighborhood with attractive, but not out-of-reach, homes for sale. Find either prospective or recent buyers with a story to tell. Create drama by adding both realtor/renovators and competing visions for the house. Give the buyers some choices and let them struggle with budgets and dreams too big for their pocketbook. Finally, show them a beautifully finished and fully satisfying home in a “reveal” that has everyone feeling splendid at the end of the episode. As in most reality TV, scripts are massaged after shooting, and facts are expendable when more tension is required. Though buyers actually foot the bill for the construction, they generally benefit from perks and free merchandise that keeps them happy throughout.
A big part of the success of shows like Fixer Upper is the chemistry between co-hosts, often siblings or a married couple. A three-year-old show set in Pittsburgh features Leanne and Steve Ford, sister and brother, in a renovation format that allows him to swing a hammer and her to create dreamy designs. As is always the case, the two are uncommonly attractive and have a “down home” sense of style that is never associated with professionals or academics. Leanne’s designs were originally “too colorful” for the HGTV house style, and she had to revise many in the direction of blandness, apparently with few complaints.
When HGTV began in the early 1990s, it used some design and building professionals, along the lines of This Old House, which began its successful run in 1979. (The network once called me about doing a history of American houses, but I cut off the conversation when they said no compensation would be offered.) But, just as Bob Vila gave way to a young man with no construction or real estate experience, HGTV soon found itself casting DIYers and other amateur designers for their “freshness” and lack of pretense. (A former boy band singer offered his lack of experience, but was turned down.) Producers also discovered that viewers wanted more footage of demolition, decision making, and glittering makeovers. They wanted to get “the talent” out of the way in order to show big, open floor plans. There would be no mansplaining by seasoned contractors or handymen, just wide-angled shots of kitchen islands and high ceilings.
The nuts and bolts of renovation are underplayed by The Property Brothers, Drew and Jonathan Scott (Canadians who aimed at being actors before selling property), who skim over the details of how they will remove bearing walls and replace fireplaces with skylights while smiling and bantering with “clients.” Usually a few sledgehammer blows into drywall are all that viewers see before sheetrock and fresh paint pop up, and voilà, a sparkling new interior appears with elegantly styled (and usually temporary) decorative flourishes. The apparent ease and reasonable cost of these renovations conceal a lot of real-world strife and disappointment.
If HGTV is “like Xanax,” in the words of one former producer, don’t we toy with the minds of viewers when we up the dosage? Worse, if the network pursues even sillier, more-outlandish scenarios, won’t the delusions increase?
The fiction behind rose-colored programs purporting to show life experiences like marriage, dating, and house buying may seem trivial when compared with the tribulations of injured veterans returning home, factory layoffs, or the murder of innocent people of color, but damage is always done when truth is obscured, no matter the subject. If HGTV is “like Xanax,” in the words of one former producer, don’t we toy with the minds of viewers when we up the dosage? Worse, if the network pursues even sillier, more-outlandish scenarios, won’t the delusions increase?
I have written a good deal about the steep decline in income and credibility that both design and construction professionals have seen during the past quarter-century. Design websites and TV shows have contributed greatly to this problem, but HGTV is more symptomatic than instrumental in its role. The insipid rise of DIYers and alternative-reality websites is at the core of an erosion of essential knowledge about nearly everything affecting our daily lives. When entertainment and news outlets pile on with their own, more-polished versions of fake expertise, the public is pulled deeper into a chasm of “anything goes” production, including the making of things that affect our health and safety, like buildings.
I am hardly the only architect to find dealing with clients increasingly frustrating, as even well-educated people spout rubbish they learned from HGTV or Houzz. Often, material replacement, design improvements, or construction strategies appear to be less costly and more expedient than is possible in the local marketplace. They are too good to be true, and that would have been obvious even 10 years ago. When I explain this fact, I am confronted with cellphone videos that “proves you are wrong.” I am then forced to document the falsehoods behind what appears to be perfectly reasonable, especially when served up by handsome, well-dressed actors like the Property Brothers.
Now that we are in a housing and climate crisis that must be fixed before our grandchildren inherit the mess, the taxpaying public must not be distracted with ridiculously overblown stories, and pictures, of marvels they can’t have, let alone consider. The “Marvel Universe” is now the most popular motion picture franchise on Earth, and much of what appears on reality TV is no less a fantasy than comic book heroics rendered in realistic “industrial light and magic.” A new British reality series, Your Home Made Perfect, provides homeowners with walk-through VR renderings of their renovated spaces, presumably to make choices easier—but many clients seem more confused after watching what designers say are “realistic” holograms.
The economic and technical information offered by websites and TV franchises must be vetted by professionals if the public is to understand the challenges facing their communities in coming decades. Neither the AIA nor standard design media seem to be concerned about HGTV or its imitators. The question is always how truth finds its way into the public sphere, skirting the thicket of political and cultural potholes that increase with every passing year. Good, durable housing, parks, and institutional buildings are scarce in the current battered economy and must be created if working people are to maintain their desire to contribute to building a vital, sustainable environment. No one is immune to the seductive stories and images that proliferate on reality TV, nor should anyone be blamed for indulging in a little feel-good viewing after several of the most dispiriting years in recent history.
All programming, throughout the media landscape, must strive to promote accurate representations of the world at large, especially in areas of public policy and government intervention in our lives. Our homes are the nearest things to us—to our bodies, loved ones, pets, bank accounts, and emotions. They shouldn’t be toyed with by cynical property-mongers spouting false narratives about dream homes, makeovers, and fixer-uppers; indeed, these terms indicate a blithe indifference to the stark reality of shrinking incomes, fading chances of advancement, and decreasing housing choice for most Americans. Young couples are now almost completely priced out of the single-family market. Condominiums are going up fast, but they won’t take up the slack at affordable prices, forcing many to rent. Co-housing, long popular in Europe, is becoming more acceptable, especially on the West Coast.
It’s a scary world out there for house hunters. Real estate agents, home builders, and developers are always at a disadvantage when trying to reach all corners of their markets. The Biden administration has signaled its willingness to help with both affordable programs and public awareness campaigns. These players deserve a media system that tells it like it is, not like it was half a century ago; one that shows consumers the best they can afford in their income range. The new messaging is urgent: The 99 percent could soon be without hope of finding not merely their dream house, but any house at all.
Featured image: In 2019, HGTV launched Rock the Block, a competition series where four designers are each given four weeks and a $175,000 budget to redo identical houses. According to the network, “the designer who increases their home value the most wins.” A second season began in March.