Horribly Guilty Television

Ron Becker / Miami University

Horribly Guilty Television: HGTV and the Promotion of America’s Ownership Society

House Hunters

HGTV’s House Hunters host Suzanne Whang.

I am ashamed to admit that I am obsessed with HGTV, which, for me, is classic potato-chip television; I may decide to watch an episode of Curb Appeal but invariably end up gorging on an entire afternoon’s lineup.

HGTV is my most painful guilty pleasure not because it has to be about some of the cheapest and most formulaic programming around (if you’ve seen House Hunters you know what I mean). Not because it lacks the any markers of “supposed” highbrow respectability (like, say, The Wire). And certainly not because it is ostensibly women’s programming. I am ashamed because as much as any corner of the television universe, HGTV reflects and in its way, I’d suspect, has helped fuel the unfettered consumerism and neoliberal politics that have helped put millions of American homeowners into foreclosure and bankruptcy and that are threatening the economic stability and environmental viability of our society. (Yes, I’m just a bit pessimistic these days.)

Mortgage Crisis

The subprime mortgage crisis has dramatically increased the number of foreclosures in the United States.

Of course the real estate bubble, ex-urban sprawl, and consumer debt loads were enabled by the deregulation of the mortgage industry, unscrupulous corporate business practices, and the kind of bandwagon-psychology that can creep into any market. But they were also reinforced by Bush’s advocacy of an ownership society and cultural assumptions about the importance and appeal of being a homeowner. By the early 2000s, to not get into the real estate market seemed irresponsible and to not want to seemed inconceivable. Ideological constructions that had long juxtaposed the nurturing sanctity of the private home against the heartlessness of the public sphere and its market forces seemed to be dramatically remodeled. Investment calculations and hearth-and-home romanticizations easily blend; granite countertops become the foundation for both economic and moral security.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1b-AEInJRs[/youtube]

Such ideological shifts can undoubtedly be traced in HGTV’s re-invention of home-centered reality programming. PBS’s long-running This Old House, for example, had long educated viewers about home renovation by following the ins-and-outs of one complex project over the course of an entire TV season. What took a months on PBS, however, takes a mere 22 minutes on an episode of New Spaces, Save My Bath, and Spice Up My Kitchen, and an ethos of re-use gets replaced by the pleasures of instant gratification and the spectacle of the new. Meanwhile, in contrast to Lifetsyles of the Rich and Famous and Cribs (which foregrounded the exceptional nature of the homes of celebrities and the overtly wealthy), many of HGTV’s shows (e.g., Divine Design, New Spaces, Curb Appeal) normalize upper-class living by hiding (rather than highlighting) the class privilege required to have custom cabinetry and glass tiled-backsplashes. (Even more relatively downscale shows like Design on a Dime naturalize homeownership and investment.)

Many of the channel’s real estate shows (House Hunters, House Hunters International, National Open House, Property Virgins, My First Place) upscale expectations while also normalizing and narrativizing participation in an over-priced real estate market. (Given the aspirational agenda of a channel reliant on sponsors like Lowe’s, most shows predictably featured houses priced above the median). HGTV’s truly innovative “realty TV” programs make buying and selling $300,000 houses exciting and easy. For example, they usually ignored the profound anxieties of home inspections and mortgage negotiations (though perhaps in doing so accurately reflected the actual market where lenders, brokers, and inspection agents allegedly conspired to make buying a home dangerously easy). They also ignore contentious price-negotiations and bidding wars. Here, everyone gets the house they want; everyone–the buyers and the sellers–win; no one loses. Who wouldn’t want to get involved in such exciting stories that always have a happy ending?

One would expect that HGTV has had to change its strategies in the face of the current foreclosure crisis. Last year, for example, I had to stop watching my favorite shows when my partner and I got caught in the sinking housing market. For some reason, watching HGTV just wasn’t that enjoyable as our house sat on the market for 4 months. In general, however, the channel’s lineup hasn’t changed dramatically. Granted, shows like 25 Biggest Real Estate Mistakes, Sell My House, My House Is Worth What? and Designed to Sell address recent anxieties by focusing on the importance and power of home staging in a competitive market. But even these shows promote the assumption that homeowners who follow the advice about investing in one’s home through proper renovation and design efforts will still be able to sell their homes and get the price they “deserve.” HGTV may have to work a bit harder, but it is still committed to maintaining an ideology of homeownership. Given the channels’ sponsorship base and the fact that the channel relies heavily on reruns of previous seasons’ episodes, it makes sense. After all, scheduling new shows that openly grapple with the crisis would merely foreground just how out of touch the reruns are. HGTV’s investment in promoting its myths about homeownership is highly overdetermined.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2g3H84soIA[/youtube]

And its current strategy of denial may just work. Barely a year after our house sold (for $30,000 less than we expected), I have returned to HGTV. I love trying to guess which Buenos Aires condo the Michigan lawyer will pick, and I love seeing what recessed-lighting magic Candice Olson will unleash on the next gloomy basement family room. Of course my pleasure speaks volumes about my own privilege. But I think it also speaks to the seductive appeal of HGTV’s spectacles and narratives of homeownership. And it may also speak to the fragmentation of TV viewing, the individuation of citizenship, and the economics of boutique cable channels. HGTV may be losing those viewers who had been seduced into buying an overpriced priced house, but to be honest, those viewers wouldn’t realistically be in the channel’s target audience any more, would they.

I suspect you can understand why I feel guilty.

HGTV Logo

The logo for Home and Garden Television.

Image Credits:
1. HGTV’s House Hunters host Suzanne Whang.
2. The subprime mortgage crisis has dramatically increased the number of foreclosures in the United States.
3. The logo for Home and Garden Television.

Please feel free to comment.

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6 comments

  • I’ve only seen a few shows/episodes on HGTV and I couldn’t even tell you the titles – but the few times I have watched it the focus was on “starter homes.” I think the notion of a starter home also has interesting class implications that position home-ownership as “no-big-deal.” A $200,000 purchase is now intended to be viewed as temporary and it’s “normal” that you’ll be able to afford an even bigger and better home in the(near) future.

  • Pingback: lawyer » Blog Archive » Horribly Guilty Television: HGTV and the Promotion of America’s …

  • Yay hooray! Flow has full-content RSS feeds now! I’ll never have to leave NetNewsWire again!

    BTW, your <title> tag is empty.

  • I like how you point to elision of time in the HGTV format — buy a house, go to Home Depot, spend 22 minutes, and bam! Your house is beautiful! I don’t think this is anything new — look at something like “America’s Biggest Loser” and how it turns weight loss into a 12-week season — but I do think it points to the ways in which we shame ourselves when we fail to live up to the “reality” we see on television.

  • I’ve always associated homeownership with working class immigrants, maybe because I’m the grandson of immigrants. Off the cuff and from personal experience, I’d say that immigrant discourses about home ownership position it as participatory rather than private citizenship. On a related note, my dad’s dad used to say that he was happy to pay taxes, because it meant he was doing well enough to contribute to the public good.

    Assuming I’m right, I wonder about the mechanisms of HGTV’s representation of homeownership (I’m flying blind and deaf here since I haven’t watched the channel). In other words, what other (dare I say alternative?) discourses about homeownership get erased, effaced, and elided in the process of representing homeownership the HGTV way?

  • In fact, two of the programs you cite, My First Place and Property Virgins, focus exclusively on the various anxieties involved in home acquisition, suggesting HGTV’s tacit acknowledgment of the complexities of real estate transactions while offering viewers a primer on entry level home acquisition. In the latter, a dogmatic real estate agent/host offers novice home buyers a form of real estate education, often mocking their unrealistic expectations as she leads them from house to house, advises them on the potential of each property, and then executes negotiations before wrapping up the program with the message she hoped to instill in these rookies. In the former, much of the program is devoted to confessional-style interviews with the prospective home buyer(s), who openly discuss their anxieties about each stage of the process. While ostensibly focusing on the trials and tribulations of home buyers, these two programs cleverly depict the real estate agent as the kind shepherd of a dangerous and now uncertain marketplace, always serving the best interests of the buyer and anticipating every danger lurking around each corner. In this way, the resolution at the end of the program is not just the choice of home and the successful completion of the real estate contract (i.e., the typical HGTV resolution); it is also the dissipation of the anxieties involved in home buying–such fears are either unreasonable (who needs to put money down? aren’t we glad we won that bidding war?) or methodically and assuredly allayed by the buying agent. Of course, anyone who has seen the dark, harrowing, and sadistic HGTV program ‘Buy Me’ knows that the network does not trade exclusively in such forms of wish fulfillment.

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