Are housing shows flipping out?

With the US economy in the tight squeeze of both a mortgage crisis and major housing slump, some cablecasters are incorporating grim fiscal facts into their factual home programming - balancing the need to play up the hope on the horizon while simultaneously representing reality. It's a tough call. The crunch could be over by the time new shows come online, so how are broadcasters reacting?
September 1, 2008

With the US economy in the tight squeeze of both a mortgage crisis and major housing slump, some cablecasters are incorporating grim fiscal facts into their factual home programming – balancing the need to play up the hope on the horizon while simultaneously representing reality. It’s a tough call. The crunch could be over by the time new shows come online, so how are broadcasters reacting?

TLC is embracing the circumstances and has incorporated them into Hope for Your Home, a show with the end goal of having the homeowner either refinance their mortgage or make the best sale possible. The show debuted in August, but has been in the works for a year as the situation in the market continued to evolve. Says Eric Black, director of programming at TLC, ‘We weren’t psychic, we didn’t know the crisis would be as bad as it was, but we were certainly aware that there was trouble in the housing market and we wanted to create a show that gave the audience information on how to address concerns about the market and hopefully give them some uplifting sense that their situation isn’t completely beyond their control.’

Promotion of the show has played up the timeliness of Hope, taking the reality of the mortgage crisis and coupling it with the message that there’s hope. Black doesn’t think that timeliness will detract from the program’s shelf life because the information on the value of the home is evergreen.

At the moment, Hope is the only TLC program that exists specifically in response to the deflated US market, but if the net wages its bets correctly, it may not be the last.

Andrea Gorfolova, president of Toronto-based production company Tricon Films, says that other networks, Canadian and American, are feeling the heat of the housing collapse and are talking about it openly with production companies.

‘In the specialty channels, there’s going to be way less of the vicarious living, looking at the best and richest houses in the world and more about how to love your own home and visiting places when you don’t have too much money to spend,’ says Gorfolova. She feels docusoaps and personality-driven factual programming are a trend that’s beginning to wane in light of recent realities, and that shows will be going back to information-based and how-to.

Gorfolova doesn’t think foreclosure shows will work. ‘It’s not going to be about how you lose your house, it’s going to be about how to keep your house and how you’re going to make it and the environment around you better,’ says Gorfolova.

HGTV VP of program development Mary Ellen Iwata is seeing a number of foreclosure pitches at HGTV. ‘[Producers] try to give it a happy spin, like ‘Oh, there’s a first-time buyer – that’s the way they can get a house.’ Well yeah, that’s because of someone else’s misfortune,’ she says.

All foreclosure pitches have been declined because by the time such a show is complete, the housing market could be stable again, says Iwata. On top of that, the network just doesn’t want to bum out the audience. ‘I don’t think people want to come home and see someone losing a home or see someone’s home is on the auction block. They see that on the news. They don’t come to us for the unhappy stories,’ she sums up.

But that doesn’t mean nets are just ignoring the crisis. There are other ways to adapt current programming to fit reality. A&E, the network behind Intervention and Dog the Bounty Hunter, isn’t airing foreclosure shows, but it is adding more reality to its home programming than other networks. Flip This House and Sell This House are very aware of the housing climate.

House flipper Armando Montelongo commented in the season opener of Flip This House that he was going to prove how skilled he was by flipping a house in a terrible neighborhood during a time when the housing market is in a state of collapse. A&E’s SVP of non-fiction and alternative programming, Robert Sharenow, says that Montelongo’s statement was included in the show because the housing climate is on house flippers’ minds. ‘It’s a major shift in American economic culture and it’s certainly affected them. In terms of viewer experience, in some ways it makes the show that much more compelling because the drama is heightened for the flippers because it’s a tighter market,’ says Sharenow.

As for Sell This House, Sharenow is convinced the show is more germane now than ever. ‘The very essence of that show bespeaks to the crisis even more because the whole point of the show is to take houses that aren’t selling and we help the owners figure it out,’ he says. In both shows, houses are at the low end of the housing market and some of them have been affected by the mortgage crisis.

Talking about a subject that may not be so timely doesn’t mean it will impact the shelf life of the program, says Sharenow. ‘These shows have done incredibly well during the good times and the bad times in real estate. I think one of the truisms in American life is that it’s everybody’s dream to own a home so there’s that appeal for those who do own homes and for people who aspire to,’ he says. Sharenow says A&E has similar shows coming down the pipeline that reflect the housing trend of value, which will be just as relevant if the economy is still in shambles.

He also acknowledges that the conversation with audiences has changed at this point. ‘I think the viewers see things with different eyes now whereas six years ago when we started these shows, a lot of people were probably drawn to them with the idea of becoming house flippers and investing,’ he says. ‘Now they’re looking for ways to create value and gauge the real estate market and understand how better to sell their homes.’

As for programming that doesn’t reflect any mortgage crisis at all, Sharenow believes that it runs the risk of being a disconnect from reality for viewers. ‘I think a show that completely ignored it or just existed as if the crisis wasn’t happening wouldn’t resonate,’ he says, noting that A&E stresses to emphasize the ‘realness’ of content. ‘Our shows are deeply rooted in reality and sometimes the houses don’t sell and we show that. Our shows have been enduring better because they haven’t created a fantasy world outside of what’s really going on – they are what’s really going on.’

Over at HGTV, Iwata says they’re sticking to what works for them: shows that increase the value of the home. ‘We’re still moving forward, doing property, doing renovation, doing makeover, doing real estate. I’ve got a lot more of them in development so I don’t see it stopping anytime soon and I think there’ll always be an interest in it,’ she says. Currently HGTV’s numbers are strong, according to Iwata, so she believes the housing market has not affected them.

DIY is a network that has the perfect show for the mortgage crisis, Sweat Equity, but it was more a matter of luck than striking while the iron was hot. The entire program revolves around do-it-yourself projects that will create equity for the home. It’s an incredibly relevant show, but according to Andy Singer, DIY’s head of programming, it’s just luck that it is so timely. ‘Sweat Equity wasn’t created in reaction to the market,’ says Singer. ‘It was created for our network and our network’s mission, which is to offer home improvement advice to people.’

Singer does not believe the network needs to react to the market, but the informational how-tos of the network’s programming have the ability to appeal to homeowners affected by the housing collapse. Ten Grand in Your Hand is an upcoming show that Singer credits as being incredibly relevant. The show promises $10,000 in savings to a homeowner willing to work smartly on their home. ‘That program wasn’t developed with the market necessarily in mind, but it’s perfect for what’s going on.’

Instead of creating programs specifically to reflect the market, Singer believes that DIY’s staying true to the mandate and programming smartly are great choices for the network. And it seems to be working, since Sweat Equity is the channel’s highest-rated show.

The Fine Living Network also continues to conduct its business as usual. Chad Youngblood, Fine Living’s general manager, says the network hasn’t been impacted yet by the mortgage crisis, but if the slowdown were to really drag out, it would cause changes. ‘I think there is a potential for it to change the mood for television viewers to the point where real estate is such a painful topic where they don’t really want to hear about it on television. But I don’t think we’re there yet,’ he says.

For the time being, Fine Living will not be creating any programming reflective of the current housing climate and its strategy will remain unchanged. The network will continue to focus on programming that helps viewers get more enjoyment out of their home – assuming, of course, that they still have one.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.