They want granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. They want a finished basement and an en suite bathroom. They want (original) hardwood flooring and His-and-Hers vanities. They want it for less than fair market value and in their current neighborhood. They want curb appeal, and they don’t want the paint that is currently on the walls. (They know that paint is cheap and easy to fix, but it’s hard for them to see past it.) They are unaware of mold and problems with wiring and the fact that the joists holding up the second floor need to be sistered so that the bathtub doesn’t end up in the kitchen. Above all, they want an open concept. For entertaining!
If this list seems familiar to you, if you know, very instinctively, what it is they want, it’s likely you are one of the millions of people who watch Home and Garden Television (HGTV) every day. You’ve sat down in the middle of a Flip or Flop episode and continued on to watch four or five more. You’ve been caught in a seemingly endless overnight loop of Beach Front Bargain Hunt. You’ve seen house hunts followed by renovation estimates followed by lengthy kitchen re-dos followed by brief tags showing the happy family in their new home followed immediately by more house hunts, more renovations. According to HGTV, viewers in their target demographic watch the network for an average of two hours and 14 minutes per sitting. But why? What is it about HGTV that makes it so compulsively watchable? While TNT can run all the Law and Order marathons it wants, Home and Garden Television is the new home of procedural TV.*
According to Nielsen, HGTV has one of the most affluent viewerships in extended cable, regularly dominating what’s referred to as “Upscale” viewers with household incomes over $125,000 (47 percent of their total viewership has an income above $75,000). More than that, 75 percent of the total viewers are already homeowners. So HGTV’s is a uniquely well-off viewership, but it’s also a uniquely committed, or, perhaps, compelled viewership. Either way, that’s a lot of House Hunters for people who already own houses.
A few months ago, Jen Doll wrote about the tireless appeal of House Hunters in particular. For Doll, the show is all about the “underlying theme of unbridled domestic aspiration paired with the reality of compromise, the appearance versus the actuality of what we want and what we can have.” Much of the network’s marquee programming beyond House Hunters is about trading up, re-investment, buying, and selling. HGTV, as we might expect, is so watchable because it features attainably realistic ritual re-enactments of the American Dream every half-hour.
There’s something more than just ideology bringing viewers back to these shows, though, something both more and less complicated than the repetition compulsion of seeing a pleasingly optimistic fantasy of economic and domestic progress play itself out over and over. If we compare HGTV to its Premium Cable mates like HBO, the shows on HGTV lack the type of audience “investment” so sought after by long-form serial television shows. Viewers aren't “invested” in HGTV the way they would be in Game of Thrones or even reality fare like The Bachelorette; instead, they're locked in.
For a network aimed at a general audience, one would have to change very little about an afternoon of HGTV programming to turn it into a video art installation critiquing consumer capitalism.
When we think about the type of repetitive viewing HGTV encourages in a contemporary context, we think of Breaking Bad and Orange Is the New Black. We think, in other words, of “binge-watching” and the irresistible urge to keep ourselves immersed in the progressive story-worlds of complex serial dramas. But HGTV—despite some recent, awkward attempts at reality competition programming and a few shows like Rehab Addict that feature multiple-episode renovation arcs—is not a heavily serialized network. Like the sitcoms of yesteryear or the crime procedurals that pad the major networks and play on loop in syndication, HGTV shows are mostly self-contained at the level of the episode. They’re not non-narrative, but the narratives are doled out in single servings, and they follow highly specific, highly familiar beats. This is the formal model of the classic crime procedural—Law and Order, NCIS, CSI, any number of the most popular television programs on air at any given time—but HGTV has re-purposed it to give us intimate, addictive access to the ins and outs of the contemporary real estate market.
LET'S TAKE, AS AN example, the relatively recent addition Flip or Flop. The premise of this show is as follows: Tarek and Christina El Moussa were high-living—extremely attractive—Orange County realtors with a baby on the way, and then the housing bubble burst. After their jobs went down the toilet, the El Moussas decided to start flipping houses. It’s one of HGTV’s grittiest shows—inasmuch as the new family seems to often be in a genuinely precarious financial position—but it’s also one that demonstrates what’s so weird and engaging about the structure that the network has had such success replicating.
Each half-hour episode works the same way. First, Tarek and Christina are shown doing research on a property they can buy at auction. They drive their SUV over, check out what they can see of the house—most of these auction houses must be purchased sight unseen—scope out comparable houses in the neighborhood, make a quick calculation, and buy it. The plan is to buy low, renovate, and sell high enough to both recoup expenses and make a profit.
After the first commercial break, we follow Tarek and Christina on their first trip inside the home. Often the houses are in OK shape, and the two begin sketching out ways to add a luxury kitchen or a high-end powder room to increase the value of the home. More often than not, however, there’s a problem. Sometimes the foundation is cracked or there’s mold in the walls or there’s a pest infestation or there’s a lien on the property or there’s a homeless man squatting in the bedroom or some other “catastrophe” befalls the flip such that Tarek and Christina end up in over their heads. Regardless, the renovation marches on, with head contractor Israel keeping a running tally of added expenses, until the day of the first open house.
The houses are almost always beautiful, and as Tarek and Christina awkwardly usher potential buyers around, they’re almost always impressed. But—and this is something of an anomaly on HGTV—it doesn’t always work out. Often, the episode ends with a voiceover saying that, after a short period of time, Tarek and Christina sold the house for a preposterous sum and took home in excess of 60 or 70 thousand dollars. But not that infrequently, the episode ends with a voiceover saying that, after three or four weeks on the market, the house is still unsold. Tarek and Christina, in other words, look like they might be fucked.
But then—whether we last saw the El Moussas rolling around on a bed of cash or $175,000 in debt—the next episode starts up, and none of this is ever spoken of again. There may be some alternate universe in which there is a program about the rising and falling fortunes of a down-on-their-luck family making their way through the tough Orange County real estate market, suffering triumphs and setbacks together, learning lessons, growing closer as a couple. Flip or Flop, however, is not that show. And as much as we viewers may have an impulse to know whether the El Moussas make it out alive, each new episode erases the past, starts the couple off anew, and any accumulated capital, debt, or even expertise stays neatly contained within the previous episode.
The ungenerous way of characterizing this would be to say that HGTV is selling a capitalist fantasia that would be severely complicated, even frequently unspooled, if it were to be extended past the space of the episode. The generous way of characterizing this, though, is that HGTV is not interested in progress—only process. Indeed, it’s not invalidating the former critique to say that, just like Law and Order and CSI, these shows are procedurals.
As you might imagine, this profoundly impacts the way that character is developed on HGTV. In other words, it isn’t. We get contextualizing glimpses of home-buyers on shows like House Hunters or Property Brothers, but, like the murder victims on Law and Order, they’re just the catalysts, not the protagonists. And even the central personalities—whether it’s Tarek and Christina, Hilary and David on Love It or List It, or the Property Brothers—may serve as anchors, but they too are interchangeable, mere signals of shifts in the tone, if not the substance, of a particular show.
HGTV isn’t a network that accumulates narrative, but it is a network that accumulates detail. (This phenomenon reached a surreal height last year when a registered nurse watching Flip or Flop noticed a troublesome bump on Tarek’s neck in multiple episodes and wrote to the production company about it. Tarek went to the doctor and was diagnosed and treated for thyroid cancer. This sub-plot, needless to say, was not included on Flip or Flop.) And so viewers build a practice in which tics, trends, and types supplant personalities. On Love It or List It, Hilary always over-promises and David can’t stay within a budget; on Property Brothers, almost nothing can upset the charming twin hosts; Nicole Curtis’ workers frequently look at her as if she’s an insane person when she’s not paying attention; Americans don’t understand the European real estate market; men are misers; women are hysterics and sentimentalists.
This kind of attention mirrors the other primary way we watch HGTV, which is, of course, through attention to the houses themselves. Character, in the sense of a complex psychology, is replaced by character in the sense of a fireplace with original brick. HGTV is producing a generation of upscale viewers who now watch television with a film theorist’s eye for mise en scene. (Wes Anderson should make a deal to produce the network’s first original feature film.) We even begin to fetishize particular styles and details as they appear and re-appear across programs. White cabinets, dark hardwoods, Edison light bulbs, apron sinks, stainless steel, and granite all mean quality, luxury, comfort. Open concept living spaces mean the possibility and promise of friendship and sociality. And nobody really wants wallpaper.
While it might be silly to suggest this kind of reading of HGTV—we generate meanings for the things we watch regardless of what material they provide to us—the phenomenon of HGTV, and the network’s historical insistence on not building in the kind of serialized narrative drama that is the foundation of other reality TV shows, seems unique in popular culture right now. Neither instructional like the Food Network nor informative like Discovery, it’s even unique within its own genre of lifestyle porn. For a network aimed at a general audience, one would have to change very little about an afternoon of HGTV programming to turn it into a video art installation critiquing consumer capitalism. But it also functions as a kind of pulpy romance of capital itself. This duality is part of what makes HGTV such preposterously good television. We can fully buy into what HGTV is selling, or we can read along with Marx as each new commodity is fetishized in front of us. The network allows for both readings—it’s an open concept.
*UPDATE — September 29, 2014: We originally wrote that TBS airs Law and Order marathons. TNT is the channel that airs Law and Order marathons.