From bait-and-switch marriage proposals to wig-pulling, cocktail-tossing catfights, it’s safe to say we’ve grown accustomed to absurd contrivance and scripting in "reality" television. But who would expect such dramatic puppet-mastering on HGTV?
Apparently we all should have. Earlier this week on the website Hooked on Houses, former House Hunters participant Bobi Jensen called the show a sham. Jensen writes that the HGTV producers found her family’s plan to turn their current home into a rental property “boring and overdone,” and therefore crafted a narrative about their desperation for more square footage. What’s more, producers only agreed to feature Jensen’s family after they had bought their new house, forcing them to “tour” friends’ houses that weren’t even for sale to accommodate the trope of “Which one will they choose?”
This does not sound like the network ethic that HGTV general manager Kathleen Finch told Slate's June Thomas about in a February interview, during which she defended HGTV as “a network of journalistic storytelling, not dramatic storytelling,” claiming that producers are “very conscious of not allowing any kind of fake drama.” That was then. On Tuesday HGTV issued a classic hedging statement, telling Entertainment Weekly that, yes, producers recruit families who have already done most of the house-hunting legwork to accommodate production time constraints, but that “because the stakes in real estate are so high, these homeowners always find themselves RIGHT back in the moment, experiencing the same emotions and reactions to these properties."
Surely any one of us could feign disappointment on takes 10, 11, or 12 when encountering laminate rather than hardwood floors, but HGTV's qualification doesn’t begin to address Jensen's claim that the show films house tours of homes that are not even for sale.
So what's the problem? By now, the onus is on the viewer to consume all “reality television” with a chuckle and a grain of salt. The genre's underlying appeal is often rooted in its escapist, aspirational qualities (or, at other end of the spectrum, its indulgence of our basest schadenfreude). But House Hunters was always much more about showing us an attainable reality than a fantasy. The show (and its many iterations), in which people just like us (juggling budgets, worried about school districts, pulled between city and suburb), go shopping for the best home their money can buy, not only glorifies the dream of home ownership, but makes it seem achievable. (If that IT guy and his elementary school teacher wife can successfully get out of their dingy apartment and into a new home with the requisite granite countertops, “marriage-saving” double vanities, and bedroom-sized walk-in closets, so can I!) This plays right into our inexplicably unwavering attachment to home ownership: Despite the collapse of the housing market, polling continues to demonstrate that we regard owning a home as the cornerstone of the American Dream—a perception that undoubtedly played a role in the home-buying craze prior to the bubble’s burst.
Showing houses that aren't even for sale at prices divined by its producers, House Hunters is presenting dangerous misinformation about the home-buying process and deleting all of the accompanying complications and consequences. It's turned what is actually a messy, frustrating, often dead-end process into a seamless (and perhaps necessary) path toward fulfillment. What's more, it seems likely that viewers use the prices, locations, and home criteria discussed on the show as barometers for their own house hunts because the information is presented as fact. No, House Hunters does not explicitly condone selling one’s soul for a white picket fence, and other HGTV shows like My First Place and Property Virgins do delve into money and home-inspection woes from time to time. But doesn’t HGTV have some obligation to portray the housing market as it is, or, at the very least, offer a pronounced disclaimer about the producers’ creative and logistical liberties?
Maybe they could fix this whole mess and wipe the slate clean with a good old fashioned "where are they now" episode, showing us the truth after those mortgage payments start taking a toll.