Home-Renovation TV in the Post-Bubble Era

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Feb. 9 2012 2:08 PM

Romances for the Post-Bubble Homeowner

Why are home-renovation TV shows so seductive?

Still from Candice Tells All, starring Candice Olson.
Still from Candice Tells All, starring Candice Olson.

©HGTV.

Also in Slate, read an interview with Bronson Pinchot.

On The Bronson Pinchot Project, which debuts on the DIY Network this Saturday, the actor from Perfect Strangers seems a long way from Hollywood. In fact, Balki’s in Harford, Pa., 30 miles north of Scranton, where he spends his days renovating historical properties, rescuing 19th-century clapboards from salvage yards, and concealing his refrigerator behind 200-year-old planks of wood. Pinchot’s show is about what happens when a hobby becomes a passion and then escalates into a pathology—he owns more than a half dozen homes in Harford, and he’s so obsessed with historically appropriate renovation that he spends a good portion of the pilot episode dressed in a purple pajama top. (“I just got so excited that I never got dressed,” he told me.) Pinchot’s wardrobe choices and his muted reaction when a shipment of gasolier globes arrives at his home in tiny pieces—no tears or shouts of outrage, just a look of profound sadness—represent one of the reasons that TV shows about home renovation are booming: They’re educational, aspirational, and entertaining, but they’re also incredibly raw and real.

The crash of the housing market might have signaled a crash in home and garden TV programming. Instead, TV trends have mirrored real estate trends. By the end of 2011, spending on home renovation exceeded spending on newly built homes, while January 2012 was the highest-rated month in the DIY Network’s history. General manager Ross Babbit credits the economic downturn for the increased interest in home improvement: “Folks aren’t focused on finding their next home; they’re thinking about improving the home they’re in.”

HGTV’s general manager Kathleen Finch says her network has always been more focused on people’s homes as a place to live rather than as an investment: “We never spent a lot of our airtime talking about the giddiness of inflated housing prices. But we don’t talk quite so much about the value of a home going up if a person does X, Y, and Z, because obviously that has changed a little bit.” (By my reckoning, there’s just one flipper left on these networks’ schedules—Rob Van Winkle, aka Vanilla Ice—but the producers tend to stay mum about his motivations for transforming a tired Palm Beach mansion into “the coolest crib on the Intracoastal” in The Vanilla Ice Project.)

Since the real estate bubble popped, home-focused TV programming has also come down to earth. There’s more on-air acknowledgement that renovation can be backbreaking work that sometimes goes wrong. In shows like Renovation Realities and Disaster DIY, the contractor hosts perform interventions on failing DIY projects. Babbit says these “warts-and-all” shows do well because viewers “know that projects at home aren’t always as smooth as you first planned. You can kind of laugh along with these people because you can relate to them.” Laugh, sure, sometimes. But there’s also more crying—genuine, “I promised myself I wouldn’t do this” tears—on home makeover shows than anywhere else on the TV dial.

The DIY Network plays little brother to HGTV: Both are owned by Scripps Networks, but whereas HGTV is in more than 90 million homes and attracts a largely female audience, DIY reaches 56 million homes and skews male. DIY’s ethos is in its name—its programming is all about hands-on home improvement, most of its hosts are licensed contractors, and the homeowners whose rooms are transformed always participate in the process, working saws, affixing tiles, and knocking in nails.

On HGTV, which focuses on design and real estate more than hands-on renovation, “fantasy” shows like House Hunters International—in which couples shop for homes in foreign locations—are performing well. There’s also been a subtle shift toward education. Take Canadian interior design goddess Candice Olson.* Her Divine Design, which first appeared on HGTV in 2003, was an entertaining but fairly standard renovation program that showed Olson flipping through sample books and selecting fabrics and finishes. Her new show, Candice Tells All, is far more informative; she’s still engineering a before-and-after transformation, but there’s more commentary about the thought process behind her design decisions. Finch says that’s intentional: “I’m never going to have that living room, but I’ve learned that I can choose a pillow with a contrasting pattern to the wallpaper.”

These shifts in focus were probably inevitable, whatever had happened to the housing market. After 18 and 12 years on air, respectively, HGTV and DIY needed to be renovated themselves. There are only so many times you can wow viewers with now-familiar tricks like adding crown molding, painting stripes on a “feature wall,” and switching out the hardware on kitchen cabinets.

Home-renovation shows are like romance novels for disillusioned homeowners—and so many of us, in these troubled times, are losing our illusions about our homes. Fantasizing about ditching your underwater split-level and starting all over? Property Virgins works like Proust’s madeleine to transport you back to the romantic days before pillow talk revolved around clogged gutters and overgrown lawns. Feeling defeated by a home-improvement project? Thirty minutes with Disaster DIY will prove there are people out there who are even more clueless about the proper way to use a table saw. Worried that your real-estate woes are ruining your marriage? Diagnosing the impending breakups of the hideous couples who make unreasonable demands on House Hunters is far easier than detecting the problems in your own relationship.

Seeing someone’s tears of joy when their new kitchen is revealed may warm our hearts, but witnessing the weeping that erupts at a reno gone awry indulges our darkest anxieties.  Our homes are our biggest assets, the loves of our lives, and the font of our deepest terrors. That’s good TV.

Footnote:

*Candice Olson’s origins notwithstanding, the frequency with which participants on the real estate shows express concern aboot storage space for hockey gear leads some viewers to overestimate the amount of Canadian content on the home channels. HGTV shares some shows with its Canadian sister network, and DIY estimates that about 8 percent of its programming comes from the beautifully renovated homes of the Great White North. (Return to article.)

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section.