Realty Reality:HGTV and the Subprime Crisis
The American basic cable channel HGTV became the object of public scorn after the housing market became associated with the current and ongoing global financial crisis. While noting the ways in which this channel’s programming has been complicit in the financialization of home ownership and the effacement of risk that continue to transform “dwelling” into “home” into “investment,” this article takes the occasion of enmity foisted on HGTV as an opportunity to more broadly consider the complex role of representation—or in the language of these programs, the role of “staging” —in and as part of the economic crisis. The links between complex and often abstract forms of financial speculation and the ideology of home ownership are not as direct as they were portrayed in the aftermath of the crisis. The staging of real estate in HGTV’s programming and the staging of economic practices offer two simultaneous and parallel, but distinct, practices of representation. Just as recently developing approaches to conducting the ethnography of financial markets have begun to suggest new ways of thinking about the work done in and by the economy, grounded in material practices, so too do we need to take seriously the complexity of the work done by textual representation in our understanding of political economies. Yes, through crisis we found that these practices are linked, but not directly or causally. HGTV programming does not offer confirmation or reification of the link between representational games of financial speculation and those of home owners. It is not the site of culture that has led to economic crisis, but rather a telling site of the culture of crisis.
If the social machine manufactures representations, it also manufactures itself from representations—the latter operative at once as means, matter and condition of sociality.—Jean-Louis Comolli, "Machines of the Visible," The Cinematic Apparatus
We honestly asked ourselves, "Have we been part of this?" I think we reflected the enthusiasm that people had around their homes. In some cases that meant that people were making big investments in their homes, and we tried to help them make smart decisions. But it's a stretch, and I think it's unfair, to say that HGTV fueled a housing bubble.—Jim Samples, "Reality Check for Real Estate Shows"
At the start of 2009 the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed piece by a senior vice president of an Ohio-based advertising agency, titled "Blame Television for the Bubble." The piece soon refined its target, stating: "The cable network HGTV is the real villain of the economic meltdown."1 This piece was hardly a lone voice. Less than a year earlier Miami University professor Ron Becker had asserted much the same idea while sheepishly confessing his own pleasure in watching the cable channel: "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 home owners into foreclosure and bankruptcy."2 The New York Times meanwhile has referred to HGTV as both the channel "more closely associated than any other with the country's housing crisis"3 and "a cable network that fed—and feasted on—the fantasies and delusions of the housing bubble."4 By March 2009 Time magazine had listed the "programming czar" at Scripps Networks, HGTV's corporate parent, among the "25 people to blame for the financial crisis."5
These judgments arrived amid the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression,6 in which unemployment in the United States alone more than doubled between 2007 and 2009,7 and literally millions of people lost their homes to foreclosure.8 This era, in which the wealthiest 1 percent of the U.S. population had a total net worth more than twice that of the bottom 80 percent,9 [End Page 515] is constituted by what Toby Miller has called a "bizarre reconcentration of wealth . . . unprecedented in world history since the advent of working-class electoral franchises."10 The not-yet-addicted might be forgiven for wondering how a formerly benign and banal basic cable channel like HGTV—which considers 2 million viewers a very good day—came to be considered so central to global geo-economics.11
On one level, such public targeting of HGTV represents a particular crisis in television programming. HGTV is a television channel available to most cable system and satellite television subscribers in the United States. Its programming is consistently focused on home improvement, decorating, and real estate. Its wide distribution, relative popularity (for a cable channel), and overt programming content make it a familiar and superficially logical target amid a crashing residential real estate market popularly perceived as the impetus for the global financial crisis.12 As Scripps Networks' CEO explained to investors in 2010, "some of the negative associations with the housing market caught us a little off guard." Programming, he suggested, now needed to be "a little more relevant to the times and a little more relevant to what the American public is going through."13 The very things that had made this cable channel popular and financially successful had suddenly become liabilities, publicly associated with the catalysts and causes of a ballooning housing market now burst.
On another level, however, while the accusations therefore appear to fit the accused, they also seem to beg the question and too eagerly attribute motives of global financial malfeasance. Indeed, if we are meant to take at face value a direct link between HGTV's programming and the current financial crisis, then we must discard more than four decades of audience, cultural, and textual studies in favor of a critique that posits a more or less direct correlation between "content" and "behavior." We would stand ready to accuse HGTV of explicitly and transparently conditioning its viewers to act uncritically against their own self-interests. Indeed, we would ultimately have to blame those most adversely affected by the crisis for causing the crisis.
Instead, it is perhaps the case that HGTV's low-budget, ostensibly didactic, "reality" shows combined with an almost exclusive focus on residential home improvement and ownership offer simply a convenient site for what amounts to attacks on the channel's perceived democratization of the appeals, desires, and entitlements of home ownership. Lacking the textual markers of "quality" television, HGTV's public sphere "narrativization and performance" of the domestic and the everyday functions to make its programming suspect by virtue of whom it is presumed to address. As Ruth McElroy observes, for some, HGTV "is indicative of an unhealthy shift (unhealthy, that is, for the [End Page 516] body politic) from a public sphere characterized in media terms by hard news, quality drama, and documentary, toward one marked by soft news, affective/ sensational dramas, and makeover shows."14 Perceiving this unhealthy shift has animated the critical drawing of a straight line from HGTV to bloated demand for subprime mortgages. Yet in an era of domestic financialization and crisis, this line seems inevitably to lead through a morass of largely unexamined presumptions about both who watches HGTV and who might be "responsible" for the financial crisis.
HGTV's real estate and home improvement shows, noticeably more so than most American television channels, regularly feature people of color, gay and lesbian couples, and clear class differences. With 73 percent of its viewers female and a prominent emphasis on diversity and difference across its programming, accusations about HGTV's role in the financial crisis evoke very specific cultural anxieties.15 By regularly making visible so many people formerly excluded from the "dream" of home ownership, HGTV announces itself as a site for contesting the limits of access to this dream under crisis conditions.
So let us be clear. The current financial crisis was not caused by duped viewers of basic cable television. It was not the result of "over-reaching" minority homebuyers, or the activities of the "at risk," the supposed "nanny state" Fannie and Freddie beneficiaries. It was not the result of amateurs and greedy (would-be) home owners reaching beyond their place only to find the economic equivalent of divine retribution. It was instead caused by the professional activities of supposed experts speculating without oversight.
Yet HGTV can be a significant and revealing site for understanding the rather more complex, nuanced relationship between textual representation and political economy. To be sure, HGTV has been complicit with, indeed continues to participate in, the political economy of early-twenty-first century neoliberal capitalism. This complicity is most profoundly manifest in the economic basis for HGTV, in which HGTV's commercial purpose, ownership, and distribution structure make it ultimately indifferent to any outcome other than bald profitability. Arising from this economic basis are at least two more realms in which HGTV has been complicit: the ideological, in which HGTV's programming is produced within, naturalizes, and reproduces a neoliberal worldview granting financial markets autonomy and individual subjects self-interested, fiscally driven motives; and the disciplinary, in which the cable channel's regime of low-budget "lifestyle" programming teaches viewing subjects about presentation of self, the limits of possibility, and the ubiquity of surveillance.
As an accessible and popular site of cultural representation, HGTV evokes a range of responses, from pleasure to anxiety, and has become a focal point [End Page 517] for—to borrow one of its own popular terms—"staging" the public negotiation of contradictory responses to current economic conditions. Indeed, it is precisely this complex arousal of such "curious feelings of guilt, titillation, and flooding bourgeois pleasure"16 (e.g., "I am ashamed to admit I am obsessed with HGTV")17 that has led Terry Castle to evocatively invoke the term house-porn to describe this genre of programming.
Thus the association of HGTV with the "crisis of the subprime" offers an important site for considering the role of textual representations at the intersection of class, gender, race, and text in a critique of the economy. Rather than reductive "blame" that begs the crucial questions and too readily engages in the gendered and racialized logics at play during the housing boom and bust, it is worth considering the complexity of the processes by which political economies become textualized and what this might tell us.
Complicity: The Economic
HGTV was launched in 1994, as the "Home, Lawn, and Garden Channel," at once announcing its content and targeting prospective sponsors. Backed by the Ohio-based newspaper publisher E. W. Scripps Company,18 the new channel was explicitly aimed at home-owning, middle-class television viewers (and those aspiring to join that demographic). Programming was developed with the intention of simultaneously attracting that audience and providing a "comfortable environment" for potential advertisers. Combining do-it-yourself, lifestyle, and real estate advice programming into a schedule of "shelter TV" was, as the industry trade journal Advertising Age explained, "particularly appealing to advertisers in the home category since it affords them a chance to more closely align thematically with content that matches their brands."19 This industry logic—in which a channel defines all its programming around uniting a particular audience segment with specific advertisers—was the outcome of years of multichannel growth in the American television industry and part of much larger political and economic project of deregulation and globalization (that, in a parallel fashion, affected the financial industries). Government regulatory oversight was replaced by market logics, only to witness the field of market competitors merge until just a few massive conglomerates now control most of the television industry. Citizenship, meanwhile, was conflated with consumerism and subdivided along predetermined (and product-friendly) demographic and psychographic categories, representing different "lifestyles" to be reached through programming and advertising strategies. These audience categories, Sasha Torres explains, "now might plausibly be conceived as [End Page 518] composed of multiple minoritarian segments, each with merely a partial claim to the status of 'national' audience."20 One result has been HGTV's conscious efforts at growing on-screen diversity with the idea of attracting multiple audience segments. Although 81 percent of HGTV's viewers have been identified by the channel's own research as white, with 13 percent black, and 5 percent Hispanic,21 this is nevertheless enough diversity to position HGTV as one of the most popular cable channels for home-owning African American audiences along with a "higher-than-average" number of upscale Latino/a viewers composing its national composite audience.22
While compiling this audience, even as the "Lawn" was soon dropped from the name, HGTV, by all accounts, performed very well and grew rapidly. By summer 1995 the channel had nearly 6 million subscribers. That number doubled in less than a year. It became profitable within its first four years ("12 months ahead of schedule and far earlier than the industry norm of six to seven years").23 By 2010 the entertainment industry trade journal Daily Variety estimated that HGTV was worth $4.9 billion, grossing $556 million in ad revenue that year. HGTV today currently reaches approximately 99 million homes in the United States.24 In 2008 Scripps spun off its consistently growing cable channel holdings into a separate "lifestyle media" company, Scripps Networks Interactive.25 HGTV is estimated to contribute approximately 38 percent of the new company's revenue,26 which also includes the DIY Network, the Food Network, Great American Country, Travel Channel, and Cooking Channel.27 Scripps also runs highly integrated websites, a recently launched print magazine, and an HGTV Home branding effort associated so far with paint, flooring, and bedding. In addition, Scripps continues to expand its market globally with HGTV programming alone licensed in over sixty-nine countries and territories.28 Meanwhile, recent rumors of a sale were followed by a $1 billion stock buyback, demonstrating how HGTV and parent Scripps Networks have become desirable and valuable assets with an increasingly global presence.
Yet global corporate branding paired with demographic-niche marketing is not the only way in which HGTV is complicit with and participates in the new economy of the twenty-first century. For example, even as HGTV grossed over $550 million in advertising revenue in 2010, it spent only $221.4 million on total production costs.29 That it was able to program an entire channel at so (relatively) little cost speaks in part to its liberal use of rerunning program episodes and also its (noticeably) frugal production practices. These practices extend to HGTV's heavy reliance on what Andrew Ross calls the "cultural discount" of precariously employed media labor, in which "the cultural labor [End Page 519] problem figures primarily as the challenge of maintaining a steady supply of workers willing to discount the price of their labor for love of their craft."30 Such workers are frequently freelance, sacrificing both employment security and benefits, in addition to salary, for love of their craft. Thus HGTV effectively subcontracts out much of its program production work. Its roster of reality shows is typically produced by small, independent production companies that compete vigorously for contracts, often relinquishing ownership rights—from format to library to home video to global distribution—even on shows they conceived and pitched to the channel, in order to win the contract. In such cases, "the bulk of lucrative revenues" goes to someone other than the company actually making the show. Such companies find that "it's virtually impossible to make much money off a $200,000-per-episode show, a usual charge for a cable series [in 2004]." As the cofounder of one company that supplies episodes of several of HGTV's programs, Los Angeles-based Pie Town Productions, told the industry trade journal Broadcasting & Cable, "volume is the only way we can afford to do these shows and offer year-round employment for our staff."31 The relatively small Pie Town produces more than five hundred episodes of dozens of programs for several cable channels.
Thus despite its "shelter TV" programming content, HGTV's production, contract, and employment practices reproduce the conditions of insecure, precarious employment that contribute to the high risk of lengthy mortgage commitments. HGTV participates in and is complicit with the economic practices associated with neoliberal market deregulation (with its attendant precarious employment, globalization, market fragmentation, and ownership consolidation). Yet complicity and participation in broad global economic practices are not quite the villainies of which HGTV has stood accused. For that we need to look further into the programming "environment" HGTV developed since its start to bring specific audience segments together with advertisements from specific kinds of industries.
Television, the home, and financial investment have a long and complicatedly intertwined history. Raymond Williams famously coined the phrase "mobile privatization" to capture the contradictory impulses greeting television's introduction to the home in the middle of the twentieth century.32 Television offered a virtual window from the home, letting into the private domestic realm the glare of the public world of commercials, business, news, and finance at a time, particularly in the United States, when new technologies of transportation [End Page 520] and communication coupled with federal and state economic incentives fostered the growth of suburban commuter living.
As such television found comfortable footing in the emerging "ideology of domesticity," which also emphasized home ownership, privacy, self-help—"a campaign, both political and commercial, which took up existing aspects of respectable life" and recentered them from an individual's comportment to the home.33 Television helped facilitate the transition from "dwelling" as site of labor and production to "home" as site of consumption.34 Fostered within postwar commercial, social, and political policies encouraging individual home ownership (not to mention the growth of mass media), television grew to be associated with, as John Hartley suggests, "the company it kept—personal experience, private life, suburbia, consumption, ordinariness, heterosexual family-building, hygiene, the 'feminization' of family governance."35
HGTV draws on this history of associations to stage home improvement and ownership within the ideology of domesticity. While capitalist entertainment is always on some level about property acquisition, HGTV explicitly embraces the ideology of domesticity as the very subject matter of its entire programming schedule and brand association (a point made somewhat brutally by a recent bit in McSweeney's that lists ten titles—for example, Bought and Sold, The Unsellables, Not For Sale, Buy Me—and asks: "HGTV Program or Film about Human Trafficking?").36 As McElroy has noted, such programming "places the acquisition, exhibition, inhabitation or transfer of homes at the centre of lifestyle programming. It makes the idea and material realities of property ownership mundane, common, exhilarating and compelling."37 HGTV's programming provides viewers access to the "dream" of home ownership by making its everyday components visible to all basic cable subscribers.
The programming on HGTV has always and continues to simply presume the normality of home ownership and then repeat it ad infinitum. The programming thus normalizes, routinizes, and naturalizes the facts and practices of investing in domestic property, by displaying and narrativizing, through sheer repetitive volume. It allows the ideology of domesticity to not simply underlie the commercial programming but to be visualized, made accessible, imaginable, and desirable, associating home with comfort and achievement, on the one hand, and with labor and investment, on the other. Moreover, this visualization is noticeably inclusive of difference. It has made benignly visible, on widely watched television, people whose sexuality, race, ethnicity, or class remain rare on prime-time television in the United States yet are here simply included (rather than spectacularized or problematized) as participants in this ideology of domesticity. [End Page 521]
In this sense HGTV programming can be understood to be complicit with the Bush Jr. mantra of an ownership society, in which home ownership is offered as the preferred alternative to welfare dependency. As James Hay has summarized, this policy makes "a virtue explicitly of private and personal ownership and implicitly of an entrepreneurial (self-starting, self-directed, self-responsible) citizenship."38 The ownership society logics predate the second Bush era in the United States and are supported not only by nationalized mythology—the "American dream" of home ownership—but also by years of legislative policy. As Randy Martin notes, "Homeownership is treated as one of the criteria for membership" in the expanding "investor class" poised to capitalize on government policies "of tax cuts and incentives as a means of distribution of wealth."39
HGTV's combination of naturalizing residential property ownership and DIY maintenance and improvement therefore demonstrates and reproduces the logics at work in the so-called housing bubble. As the New York Times simply put it: HGTV contributes to the "glorifying mythologies of ownership."40 The logic of this ideological complicity has been explained by John McMurria "as cultural reinforcements for encouraging multiple generations to find fulfillment through laboring to attain and maintain property."41
This is not, however, to suggest a systematic agenda imposed by a monolithic television industry. In fact, the rapid growth and success of HGTV took most in the industry by surprise. In 2004, at the peak of the home-investment boom, Advertising Age was still trying to explain HGTV's success to its readers. The trade paper suggested that the growth of "shelter" programming like that on HGTV had resulted from the fact that "the cocooning trend wrought by 9/11 still lingers, and low interest rates arrived in a timely fashion to herald a boom in home sales and remodeling." HGTV is presented in this analysis as the rather fortunate beneficiary of an unlikely conflation of broader socioeconomic conditions, rather than the genius provocateur systematically implementing a heightened regime of domestic ideology.42
Indeed, just a few years earlier the channel's content had been seen as a liability in its efforts to attain cable system carriage. Prior to HGTV, very little on American television was explicitly focused on decorating, gardening, or home ownership (rare exceptions include PBS's popular This Old House and the Martha Stewart Living syndicated program). As the Wall Street Journal put it in 1998, "despite the proliferation of 'shelter' magazines, cable companies questioned whether viewers would be willing to watch a 24-hour network devoted to 'paint drying and grass growing.'"43 Scripps pitched HGTV to cable system operators and advertisers as a channel that addressed programming to [End Page 522] "a niche the big entertainment companies had all but ignored: the growing legions of do-it-yourselfers and nesting baby boomers."44 Home ownership by the end of the twentieth century had already reached the historically high level of two-thirds in the United States, nearly 50 percent higher than a century before.45 That is, in the 1990s HGTV, rather than the cause of the housing boom, presented itself as the first channel to discover and program for the "growing legions" of home-owning, "nesting," investing, and refurbishing cable subscribers already in existence.
Regardless of cause and effect origins, HGTV's programming not only fits ideologically with a neoliberal market philosophy but also can be understood to be actually instrumental in making the practices associated with this ideology thinkable, training viewers to manage their own lives within this realm. As Anna McCarthy suggests, such reality shows are "an important arena in which to observe the vernacular diffusion of neoliberal common sense."46 With a programming schedule comprised almost exclusively of low-budget "reality TV" about domestic property, HGTV serves as a constant reminder of the potential to have one's home and one's self subject to unscripted, televisual surveillance.47 The threat and the ideals of televisual presentation become part of the lessons learned in each of the channel's pedagogic programs. Through positive and negative example, guided by self-proclaimed expertise, viewers are taught discernment, taste, and self-discipline as learned skills that are desirable, ethically appropriate, and self-empowering. As one HGTV viewer told Newsweek in 2008, "You want to see something really ugly, to be able to say 'Man, those people have bad taste.'"48 Indeed, this combination of constantly evoked surveillance in the context of pedagogic programming can be understood to have the effect of transforming the viewing subject.
The disciplinary, in this sense, might be summarized as referring to the "lifestyle" in HGTV's lifestyle programming. The techniques, skills, practices, hints, and help offered across HGTV programming teach viewers about comporting themselves, cumulatively setting the limits, contexts, and range of possibilities for people who own and invest in property. In Hay's summary, HGTV (and its ilk) basically literalize Michel Foucault's notion of governmentality: "As ongoing training, advice, and rules, these programs operated as technology for the government of the self, empowering citizen-consumers to help themselves and in that way affirming the virtues of entrepreneurial citizenship."49 The emphasis on design and DIY improvements and investments, paired with the [End Page 523] repetition of sales, investment, and refurbishment strategies through HGTV's daily schedule, effectively blur the distinctions between self-expression and the "financialization of daily life." Home ownership, as domicile and investment strategy, becomes a form of self-actualization.50 As Martin suggests, "The current financial mode is not simply spectacle, an eye-catching economic view, but an invitation to participate in what is on display as a fundamental part of oneself."51 Good consumer-citizen status, viewers are literally instructed, involves the enterprising "need to capitalize on one's home and to maximize financial security and risk-management through one's home."52 The ideology of domesticity is again extended, from dwelling to home and, now, to investment.
HGTV's programs frequently use superimposed graphics to remind viewers of the "budget" involved in projects or the "value" of home on display. For DIY programs, viewers are frequently reminded how much was spent, how long it took, and what the home is now worth because of this "investment." The home is slyly presented as a site of financialization, the place in which it pays to invest. Similarly, real estate shows remind viewers of the house hunters' budget, or the seller's asking price, and visually display the types of expectations to be associated with those numbers in various locations around North America and the world.
Crucially, this is explicitly shown to be accessible to everyone. HGTV's exceptionally prolific (for American television) representations of normalized diversity across racial, sexual, class, and lifestyle identity arrive without spectacle or stereotype. Compared with most American television, HGTV offers "a differently contoured public." As Charlotte Brunsdon urges, there is something "positive to be said about the varieties of people that these shows construct as ordinary."53 Even more so because, as National Public Radio's Morning Edition has observed, HGTV not only prominently displays difference but also "shows minorities as tastemakers, arbiters, decision-makers."54
Racial difference is not "staged" on HGTV as spectacle, as social problem, or even as a site of "at risk" behaviors. "Successful non-white couples, including blacks, Asians, and Latino/as," Anna Everett insists, "are shown not as societal threats, menaces and perils, but as 'everyday people' . . . normal and helpful suburban neighbors."55 Inclusion, however, extends only as far as commercial imperatives and consumerist logics allow, and thus representations of (relative) empowerment fit well within the disciplinary role of the programming. For example, "It is notable how 'successful' operates here to link normality to the ownership of property," McElroy notes. Full citizenship is contingent on and conveyed through home ownership. Staged in this way, the U.S. legacy of systemic oppression and disparity is effectively effaced. Displays of the [End Page 524] "exceptionalism of the non-white middle class" can neither equalize housing disparities nor transform the role gender, class, and race play in constructing citizenship.56 Instead, the systematic disciplinary lessons in neoliberal cultural participation on HGTV mean that, as NPR concluded, "in spite of all this great diversity on HGTV, everybody ends up wanting exactly the same things . . . granite and stainless steel."57
Diversity becomes another way to enact the logics of privatization and the dismantling of government assistance. The drive for additional consumer choice as a substitute for political efficacy,58 however, has clear implications when that consumer choice gets so readily linked to political repercussions, as in the aftermath of financial collapse. It is these shows, featuring these people, after all, that stand blamed for the crisis.
Yet the programming's noticeable diversity does suggest that viewing HGTV includes pleasures beyond instrumental instruction. It does not necessarily diminish the possibility of disciplinary effects to suggest that pedagogic instruction on HGTV might operate for many viewers as the alibi rather than the reason for viewing. Whether or not people watch realty TV for simple instruction in how to govern their own behaviors, it is partly what they encounter. That HGTV explicitly claims to instruct, however, might serve as convenient means to disavow other, less explicit, pleasures to be found in these shelter programs.
Certainly many viewers harbor no such need to disavow the repetitive pleasures or the consumerist lessons HGTV offers through its programming. As USA Today's television critic recently opined about HGTV, "There is something very satisfying in watching people come to the realization that today's economy, and common sense, require adjusting expectations to realities while finding a pleasant place to live in the bargain. As a bonus, you get to recoil in horror at the worst houses, root for the best and guess which they'll pick."59 Newsweek quoted one viewer of HGTV in 2002 who noted the low-key, easy access appeal of the network: "With Martha Stewart, there's so much high anxiety, you end up feeling that unless you have unlimited time and money, there's just no hope. HGTV is for real people."60 On the other hand, the Philadelphia Inquirer suggests, in a postfinancial crisis world, that HGTV might be credited "with turning viewers into savvy shoppers conversant with matters of housing value and renovation, if not always fluent on the nuances. Reality TV's impact has been discernible and keeps them on their toes, builders and contractors say."61 The New York Times, meanwhile, suggested that being a "student of HGTV" has "taught us that investing a few hundred dollars in repairs, painting and accessories can yield thousands of dollars from the sale."62 [End Page 525]
Yet viewing pleasures are not all fiscal, or strictly educational. It can also be pleasurable to ignore the financializing advice and simply enjoy access to other people's private spaces and a (albeit mediated) sense of proximity to their lives. This "browsing through scenes of national domesticity," as McElroy describes it, signals a viewing pleasure premised on "a transgression of boundaries that makes the private world intimately known and familiar on the national screen."63 Indeed, what makes the visibly diverse public HGTV presents so appealing and enticing is the way it is incorporated into the channel's generically repetitive programming. This programming continually rehearses "the desire to aspire and be mobile within the nation."64 Such aspirations are multiplied for populations formerly excluded from participation at all. Indeed, there is another form of work performed by HGTV's programming, perhaps equally central to understanding the channel's role in contemporary political economic matters, that does not become clear unless we examine the programs closely.
The Textual: HGTV's House Hunters
My buyers will walk into a house and immediately comment, "Oh, this house has been staged," just as they see it done on television. So many people watch . . . that their expectations of how a house should "show" have been heightened.—Quoted in Alan J. Heavens, "Reality TV Changed the Reality of Buying a House," Philadelphia Inquirer
Our viewers know they won't see anything anxiety-provoking or disturbing, we see that when the news in the world is dark, people tune in. We're a safe haven.—Ed Spray, quoted in Peg Tyre, "Watch the Paint Dry!" Newsweek
"Shelter TV" is called such not simply because it literally involves people's domestic dwellings as its subject matter but also because it presents this subject matter in comforting, predictable, and straightforward ways. This genre of programming is not about complex narrative, stylish formal innovations, surprise, or challenging ideas. Lacking these markers of "quality" TV, it instead appeals to its viewers by appearing simply predictable, reliably benign, and thus reassuringly comfortable.
HGTV, perhaps more so than any other channel on television, doggedly adheres to a programming lineup that is low budget, inflexibly straightforward, unspectacular, and rigidly formulaic. These cheap reality shows are almost determinedly uninteresting at the aesthetic, formal, and narrative levels. The bulk of stylistic presentation on HGTV makes John Caldwell's "zero-degree" production style of the 1970s look downright spectacular.65 As Pie Town cofounder [End Page 526] Jennifer Davidson once told Daily Variety, "It's very lean-and-mean television. It takes a certain mentality to be able to produce programming on these budgets."66
Simplicity of form is not the same as absence of form, however, so it is important to consider how the stripped-down formal aspects of HGTV programming affect their experience and interpretation. Since the genre—indeed, all "reality TV"—must keep close to the documentary evidence of visible truth, HGTV has habitually resisted narrative elaboration, complex plots, character development, or even unhappy (or ambiguous) endings. It reliably eschews current conventions of complex "quality" television. The channel's repeatedly simple formalism instead encourages a sense of transparency. Viewer attention is not explicitly drawn to the structure, arrangement, or appearance of the programs' stylistic elements. Camera angles and movement, lighting, editing, sound, even narrative appear merely functional, allowing us to simply and clearly see what is happening in front of the camera. These low-key formal arrangements nearly require that when we watch, we look right through them, as it were, seeing only the program's "content" of home owners and fixer-uppers.
But all television is representational. Rather than actual transparency, these formal characteristics help define the channel's textuality. After all, we're not really seeing "through" form into pure content. Choices are made and consistently applied. Our experience and interpretation is merely shaped by a formal strategy that seems to draw less attention to its own existence. Transparency in this case is actually the result of formal self-effacement. And this is clear if we look at how a typical HGTV show is staged.
House Hunters (1999-present) is HGTV's longest running and among its highest rated programs (episodes average between 1 and 2 million viewers, "a very respectable figure for a reality show on a basic cable network").67 Certain evenings of HGTV programming have been composed of nothing else than blocks of the program (and its near-identical twin spin-off, House Hunters International). Together these two programs have documented one thousand home purchases in their first dozen years (six years for International).68 At one point in 2011, episodes of House Hunters made up one-third of HGTV's entire schedule.69 In 2010 it drew ad revenue of about $83.2 million (up from about $57.6 million in 2008).70 The program also combines the channel's glaringly simple formal structure and repetitive style with an explicit emphasis in content on home ownership. House Hunters, in the context of the broad political economy, is clearly not a radical or even obviously subversive text. Inasmuch as it does not function to undermine or explicitly draw out the contradictions of the dominant ideology, it tends to reinforce it. It represents precisely the programming [End Page 527] intended by critics of HGTV's role in the subprime crisis, offering all the offending attributes and viewer gratifications of any HGTV program.
Of course, the program is itself a product of the new economy, in which "individual freedom" is equated with mobility, market choice, and precariousness. Like much of its programming, HGTV outsources the production of House Hunters. Several independent production companies have shot episodes for HGTV, including High Noon Entertainment and Pie Town Productions.71
To describe any episode of House Hunters is to describe a typical episode, as there is room for very little variation in the formula. As the Los Angeles Times notes about House Hunters International, "in this corner of reality TV, there are no gut-wrenching financing issues, no mortgage worries, no tedious weekends full of overpriced open houses." Instead, "this real estate fairy tale unfolds in the same fashion [every time]: a buyer looks at three houses and, like Goldilocks, picks the one that's just right."72 The half-hour episodes are actually about twenty-two minutes long (with remaining minutes filled by commercials, promotions, and teasers). Originally, House Hunters featured a host—the erstwhile comedienne Suzanne Whang, playing it blandly, if pleasantly, straight—introducing this episode's house hunters, made up of, over the years, an impressive diversity of people, looking on their own, in various pairings, or as various types of families.73 Such diversity within such a rigid formula reinforces the utter routine of domestic realty acquisition as accessible for any and everyone. As each episode's house hunters are introduced, the program briefly signals their need (and some specific desires) for a new home. These situations can hint at the complexities of residential property that are rarely followed through in any detail in the rest of the program ("their lease expires in one month" or "just took a new job in Atlanta" or, more recently, "she's looking to downsize"). While house hunters are frequently people formerly excluded from the dream of home ownership, this fact, as well as specific reasons for any limits on the stated budget, is left largely uncommented on.
Early episodes were always vague about the location of the house hunt and never revealed the house hunters' budgets (or, then, the price of the homes on display). This was apparently initially a decision based on the fact that early episodes were shot almost entirely in Los Angeles. Thus, "so as not to scare off viewers in the rest of the country, prices for the Los Angeles-area houses [were] never specified."74 The program's popularity grew after the decision was made to specify where the house hunting was taking place and how much the hunters had budgeted for a new home and what each home's asking price was. The increased access to other people's personal finances increased viewership apparently without loss of willing subjects. As HGTV executive Beth Burke [End Page 528] has explained, "people would rather be on television than not say the price of their house."75 In each episode the house hunters' budget is repeated in voice-over and on-screen graphics throughout the episode, along with each home's asking price.
The realtor is then introduced before the episode's narrative truly commences. The first five or so minutes offer the most variation between episodes: each house hunter and their location vary considerably from episode to episode (even as their ultimate property desires vary rather less). It is also the most formally innovative part of the program. Here the editing is quicker, the camera more mobile, the angles on action more often canted, than throughout what follows.
The bulk of each episode follows the house hunters and their realtor as they view three distinct properties that broadly fit the budget and desires described at the start. Footage of each significant room in each house is shot with handheld camcorders. While an occasional quick edit or rapid camera movement is allowed, these shots remain almost brutally static, nearly rivaling the impassive camerawork viewable on the Home Shopping Network and tempting the extraordinarily patient camera operator to zoom, tilt, or pan, almost imperceptibly. Yet any variation from these near-static shots would be inconceivable and utterly unsatisfying for viewers, as the entire point here is to produce a kind of formal transparency so that each room can be simply seen. The point is to invite temporary inhabitation of the space rendered before the camera. Sequences like this are not about watching television, they are about seeing into someone's home. Extremely slow pans, tilts, or zoom-outs constitute all the movement, so that home viewers may scan the screen for a full image of the room. (This formal transparency is undermined only in retrospect, upon consideration of how rare these brightly lit, high key, static shots are in our contemporary media-landscape.) In postproduction these shots are complemented with Muzak-style instrumentals. Meanwhile, graphics appear on-screen reminding viewers of the home's price and the house hunters' budget (and sometimes their location). Transitions between locations or sequences are done with wipes accompanied by sound effects and chunky graphics.
Bumpers before each commercial break tease the forthcoming sequences mercilessly, voice-overs completely resummarize the episode after each commercial break, and the same footage is edited into sequences again and again. Narratively, everything but the denouement is shown and repeated at least four or five times during the episode's half-hour block of time. The denouement segment, nonetheless, begins with yet another condensed montage revisiting, again, each of the three homes, as voice-over and on-screen graphics repeat home size, price, location, and house hunters' general impression. Then the [End Page 529] house hunters are shown "casually," if stiffly, discussing the pros and cons of each home sequentially—again intercut with by-now-familiar footage of the home under discussion—in some blandly neutral setting. Finally, the voiceover asks: "So which one did they choose?" Again, a static shot of each home is returned to, with low-budget, "game show" style suspense music and a punning graphic title summarizing their impression of each home. Suspense is held for a second or two before this program's version of the classic reality show "reveal," borrowed from makeover shows, in which the house hunters tell the camera their choice. Recently some episodes have attempted to extend the suspense by allowing the house hunters to first "definitely eliminate" one of the three choices.
A final segment involves a secondary set of "reveals." The house hunters are documented through footage shot at a later date to have taken occupancy over a quick cut that temporally collapses anywhere from a few days to many months. Once in a while the voice-over will explain a complication in taking ownership—bidding war, vague financing trouble, short sale, and so forth—but much more typically the choice of the home is simply equal to the ownership and occupancy of the home. This is demonstrated by a (relatively) rapid series of before-and-after shots of main rooms in the newly acquired home.
This indexical proof of occupancy is inevitably accompanied by unanimous assertions that purchasing this home was "the best decision" and the former house hunters are "so happy" to have the "perfect place" for them at this time. There has not been a single episode of House Hunters or its spin-offs where the new owners are revealed to be displeased or admit to having made a mistake in purchasing the home.76 While difficult financial conditions are sometimes referenced (more since the financial crisis, such as the inconvenience of dealing with bank "short sales"), the new home owners at the end of each episode are never exposed as suddenly underwater, surprised by mortgage terms, or otherwise fiscally or emotionally unequipped to enjoy their role as new home owners. Neither are they ever revealed to be displeased with (or disliked by) new neighbors, dissatisfied with schools, or unwelcome in the neighborhood. In House Hunters, buyer's remorse does not exist. Every purchased home is always exactly what buyers needed and wanted, and they could never be happier with their choice.
This, however, is largely the result of something else the program never reveals: House Hunters is staged. The simple, seemingly straightforward reality we encounter many times each day on HGTV has been constructed from production choices rather than simply recorded as it unfolded before the camera. While apparently belying the program's "reality" genre, few viewers, upon any [End Page 530] reflection, should be surprised that the repetitive editing, camera work, locations, and characters, and relentlessly predictable narrative, have been chosen intentionally rather than serendipitously stumbled on while filming.77 Upon further reflection, it might be more than coincidence that the featured buyers on this program always and only see three potential homes before making a final decision to buy a house. Perhaps less obviously, the spaces they see have often been "staged" by HGTV (or Pie Town or High Noon), with furniture rearranged, removed, or transformed; lighting changed and heightened; clutter cleaned and removed. Indeed, conversations, reactions, and direct-to-camera "confessions" are also frequently "staged" and often reshot again and again for a usable take. Any one of the three homes featured in the half-hour episode typically takes an entire day to shoot (not much time in terms of television production, but a lot more time than ever appears on-screen). Participants speak of forty-hour shoots reduced to twenty minutes of screen time. More shocking, still, to avid viewers is news that in many cases the featured house hunters are no longer hunting for a house by the time they are being filmed. To be sure of a consistent ending to each episode (with new buyers happily ensconced in new home), shooting often begins after buyers have made a decision, and frequently when they are already in escrow, thus reversing the real-world chronology.
Pie Town helpfully explains all this staging to prospective participants on their website: "This is 'reality-style' television, which means that although we aim to remain true to events as they happen, there are times we may need to direct the action. For instance, we may ask you to re-do some things, so that we get a better shot or a different camera angle, or ask you to repeat certain answers in order to tell your story in a succinct way."78 In all, to be a house hunter, you must submit an audition tape and must be completing your home search. Should you be chosen to appear on the program, you will be offered $500 in exchange for five (by all accounts, long) days of shooting. You will be asked to relook at the home you have already chosen and act surprised, make up cons to go with the pros of this and two other homes, which you will then visit—having or perhaps not having seen them when originally looking. You should not say anything that might tip off viewers about which home you (already) chose. In each case you might be asked to alter your comments or repeat yourself (for better sound, lighting, angle, or succinctness). The Chicago Tribune reported on one area realtor who "found herself having to say the same things over and over, while the camera crew shot her conversations . . . from different angles, and had to be careful not to tip off viewers to which property was chosen."79 Such realtors, by the way, are asked to escort clients without [End Page 531] compensation from the television producers, but with usually positive, repeated exposure on national television.
All this staging is important to do and useful to know about because it constitutes the necessary practices for producing the reliable, predictable, familiar, and repetitive gratifications that House Hunters offers (unlike reality). House Hunters, through its staging of apparent transparency, more than anything else, seeks to make visible the seemingly abstract content of the residential real estate market. But this visibility is necessarily constituted by leaving some things unseen. It is here that the supposed transparency suggested by the "invisible" formal characteristics and the repetitive genre conventions begins to reveal a secondary level of effacement. Even as House Hunters is produced to mask the work of its own production and appear as if it simply happened in front of the camera, it is also produced to efface the labor and the risk that exists and is inherent to its content. The "reveal" of the house hunters' choice, which through formal repetition effaces differences in buyers, is followed immediately by proof of occupancy, skipping over and masking, in the space of a single edit, the work, the transactions, the bidding, the negotiations, even the sellers involved in turning a consumer choice into a "happy ending." Risk, meanwhile, is here mitigated through temporality. Both in the program's staging (shot in reverse chronology, with the house hunter having already selected a home) and the program's narrative structure (wherein risks to home life, personal finance, and domestic investment are presented—if at all—at the start of the program, as reasons for a new purchase, which the new purchase is always shown to resolve), the production is organized around producing a transparency that effaces its own constructedness as well as its subject matter's risk.
Consider the program's diversity of minority house-hunting participants. This diversity within the rigid formulaic sameness of the program's formal structure similarly works to effectively efface the reality of home ownership inequalities. In House Hunters all house hunters, regardless of race or ethnicity, are represented as equal participants and are shown to be equally (completely) satisfied with their home purchase by each episode's end. Yet according to U.S. census data, in 2007, at the start of the subprime crisis, with total home ownership in the United States at 68 percent, the rate of white householding was above the national average, at 72 percent. In contrast, householders who were black had home ownership rates of 47 percent, and Hispanic householders (of any race) had a 50 percent home ownership rate—both well below the national average.80 These data seem to belie the premise of HGTV's equal-access programming. Moreover, as Paula Chakravartty and Dan Schiller report, this racial disparity can be found in the mortgage terms for homebuyers as well. [End Page 532] "Home loan figures from 2006 show that 53.3% of loans issued to Black borrowers were high-cost sub-prime, along with 46.2% of loans to Latinos, compared to 17.7% to white borrowers."81
Whereas much of television programming—from police/doctor/lawyer procedurals to reality contests to news coverage—is about narrativizing and spectacularizing risk, most of HGTV's shelter TV schedule offers safe harbor from even the very risks inherent to its apparently straightforward subject matter. As one realtor involved in the production suggested, "'House Hunters' is house candy. It's not realistic. It's directed. You don't learn anything about buying. You learn about real estate values. You learn about how houses look." Viewing these programs is much more a formal game than a window into empirical reality. We are formally encouraged (through recaps, dramatic pauses, lists of pros and cons) to see the homes and come to our own conclusions. Viewers are encouraged through visual and narrative redundancies, as well as through HGTV promos and teasers for the program, to "play along" while they watch: which home will they choose? Which home should they choose? Which home would I choose?82 This is a televisual game, drawing pleasure from the program's textuality rather than the "reality" of what is represented.
This strategy of mitigating and effacing real and knowable risk through televisual production practices actually operates for HGTV as product differentiation. HGTV provides a retreat for viewers and a comfortable environment for advertisers. It takes the fact of risk as an opportunity for differentiation and profit (through its effacement).
"Staging" the Economy
There is of course at least one other realm in which the real risks of residential property ownership have been understood as opportunities for profit. Parallel with the replacement of governmental oversight by market logic in the television industry, "the deregulation of financial markets," Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello explain, "their decompartmentalization, and the creation of 'new financial products' have multiplied the possibilities of purely speculative profits, whereby capital expands without taking the form of investment in productive activity." The resultant fact that "capital profitability [is] now better guaranteed by financial investment than industrial investment"83 means that nearly 40 percent of corporate profit now comes from a financial sector that employs merely 5 percent of private-sector workers.84 Investment in infrastructure, industry, and other sources of productive capital, employment, and opportunity have diminished in favor of seemingly byzantine global trading practices [End Page 533] and spiralingly abstract speculations that are as striking as cultural allegories as they are as fiscal practices.85
Consider one's individual residential property mortgage. Rather than sit with the original lender who might modestly profit off the attached interest, it has found investors and entered into a larger set of speculations. Perhaps it has become part of a mortgage-backed security (MBS). This is essentially a pool of home mortgage loans purchased from lenders and grouped together, secured with the promise of repayments, with the value of the properties as (implied) collateral. Such a bet on an aggregate of future payments has limits, and investment in them is not without potential risks: there is the risk that interest rates will rise, and mortgage lenders may end up borrowing money at a more expensive rate than the loans they previously made; there is the risk of default and foreclosure; there is even the risk of prepayments that would "return principal to investors precisely when their options for reinvesting those funds may be relatively unattractive."86
These risks have themselves been financialized, however, serving as the occasion for new financial products and thus as an additional opportunity for investors.87 For example, risk is codified and somewhat mitigated in MBSs by channeling the flow of money (i.e., people's monthly mortgage payments) through a hierarchical series of tranches, with senior tranches paid out first, junior tranches thereafter. These securities are then themselves repackaged to form larger and more diversified collateral—and thus some protection against default risk—into collateralized mortgage obligations, which are backed by the total worth of all the mortgages bundled together. At this point, for investors, the "promise of future payments" is only distantly derived from any actual mortgage of any individual home owner. What is being bought and sold are bets about aggregate mortgage payments, the percentages of certain categories of mortgages being paid regularly, regardless of whether any individual home owner was suddenly underwater or faced financial difficulty.
Yet further opportunities to bet on (or "manage") risk use these bundles as their basis. Credit default swaps allow investors to either bet that a security will pay or will not pay, even if they have not invested directly in that security. These bets can then also be bundled and sold. Such derivatives can continue to escalate (ever away from the original mortgages) while inspiring additional instruments of financial speculation.
The trading of many of these speculations on speculative trades is done en masse, often faster than can be humanly perceived through networked computers, according to proprietary algorithms, across global markets. Any one investor may on some occasions "own" one of these securities for mere fractions [End Page 534] of a second, profiting instead through arbitrage on minute differences in their trading value across different global markets.
Continuous, around-the-clock global trading in the financial markets has a material basis in the telecommunication infrastructure, computer hardware, and algorithmic trading software that makes it physically possible. The rapid (in the case of arbitrage, humanly imperceptible) trading of potentially massive quantities over potentially unlimited space also has the effect of further abstracting trading practices from material sources or implications, rendering the market in its only tangible form as screen representation.88
All these "globally traded instruments of financial speculation" represent but a subset of the "new financial products" produced and sold on a purely speculative basis. The distant basis in bets on actual home owners need not even be visible to traders, (remaining) regulators, or certainly the public, even while the "low interest rates—particularly, for mortgage and credit—that working and middle class people were offered were a response to this demand for financial investment venues."89 That borrowers became home owners (with loans they could not afford) was essentially a side effect of this demand for more and new financial products. Minority and other populations formerly excluded from home ownership were increasingly encouraged to now participate largely because investors were looking to expand financialization opportunities. In other words, "working and middle class debt was an instrument of capital accumulation for the wealthy,"90 part of a larger systemic movement toward the upward distribution of resources. Hence deflated former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan's suggestion that "the big demand was not so much on the part of the borrowers as it was on the part of the suppliers who were giving loans which really most people couldn't afford." The links between these speculations and actual homes only became clear as the liquidity crisis finally worked down the various—seemingly abstract—levels and called on the material value of the underlying mortgages.
Trading like this is not only facilitated but made at all knowable through specific, material representational practices. Hence the fashioning of "the market" as an intangible, but empirical, entity.91 It is only accessible, knowable, visible through the screen representations in which it has been staged. The market is staged in identical, overlapping, and coordinated screen presentations. "On each of these screens, the same market has a vigorous presence; traders worldwide who deal in the same financial instrument watch the same screen content, which is delivered to them by globally operating firms."92 This is a practice that emulates nothing so much as television! [End Page 535]
Indeed, the same growth of narrow-focused, specialized programming for distinct audience segments that made HGTV's programming possible has also fostered the growth of cable channels catering to audiences interested in financial markets. As Chakravartty and Schiller note, television's financial channels effectively blur "market news and advertising into infotainment [which has] not only provided a venue for promoting investment interests, but also helped spearhead a culture of credit, risk, and individual responsibility and the potential of unprecedented reward."93 Moreover, these channels represent the (seemingly abstract) risk and potential rewards of financial transactions through graphically pleasing, personality-driven, entertaining, and seemingly transparent visual forms. Screens on Fox Business News, Bloomberg TV, CNBC, and the like are typically oversaturated with information. Modeled on the "windows" interface of a personal computer or workstation, screens are multiply split, news updates scroll in different directions, live-seeming market numbers fill quadrants of the screen, and pleasant news readers occupy additional screen space, all simultaneously. This, for any interested basic cable customer, is what abstract financial markets have come to look like: numbers, information, simultaneity. After all, as Martin reminds us, "only a minority of individual investors trade more than twice a month." Awash in all this market data, the real function of these channels is to offer a "medium through which people imagine that they are living in the same world" as rapid, abstract financial trading markets.94
Yet, as Caitlin Zaloom argues, this imaginary is not limited to armchair investors at home. It is a staging that forms the very basis for financial markets to exist. The social context fostering both the creation of new trading paradigms and new financial products as well as the competitive desire among individuals to pursue aggressive trading strategies are influenced by the material staging of trading markets, the literal "blend of devices, social forms, and human skills that are necessary to make them work" in combinations that Zaloom calls the "socio-technical arrangement" of financial markets. Crucially, this material staging is not simply the arranging of preexisting financial markets but their very foundation. "Markets are socio-technical arrangements of material devices and the competitive individuals that these arrangements create."95 Markets, too, are staged.
To suggest that this all came tumbling down because too many of the actual mortgages were "high risk" (and thus more likely to default), however, seems to be missing the point. It was not actual defaults that "caused" the current global economic crisis but the complex, yet lucrative, economy of risk that was built up from and capitalized on the promises of individual home owners to make [End Page 536] their monthly payments yet was represented as managed risk through formally standardized screen representations on remote traders' computer screens. The economy of risk was staged as its own sort of game, with its own specific representational strategies, and it was a different game than home owners were playing (or even encouraged by the likes of HGTV to play).
Yes, we found out the games were linked, but only indirectly. Nonetheless, this linkage, however tenuous, gets used to suggest that particular, "subprime," individual borrowers are to be blamed for the collapse of the whole system. In such cases, reductive blame does more to contribute to the ongoing crisis, by effacing the staging that led to it, than it does to explain it.
Staging allows home buyers to imagine their own inhabitation of a space. This means effacing the actual, current status of the property (owned by the seller) by producing a preferred, future status (inhabited by the buyer). Staging does not show off how the home has been lived in, but how it might be. The spaces of the home are staged specifically to show potential buyers the most pleasing and desirable arrangement, regardless of how attainable or livable that arrangement might actually prove to be.
Staging is therefore deceptive, yet it does not really expect to actually fool anyone. Savvy homebuyers recognize when a home has been staged (the detritus of everyday life conspicuously evacuated from the property) and understand it is not "real." Nevertheless, house hunters increasingly expect—indeed desire—to view homes that have been thoughtfully staged. It is a pleasant, if transparent, and yet effective, deception.
A popular trope in shelter TV, staging is an intensely temporal project, operating now, but only temporarily, to provoke an imagination of the future. It makes the possibility of occupancy not only thinkable but desirable. In this way staging is also a useful metaphor for thinking through the relationship between ownership, finance, and textuality and race, class, and gender. In residential property, staging is a practice intended to facilitate a sale. Its correlates in financial markets, on television, and in representational practices operate similarly.
HGTV and its public associations with the financial crisis offer an important site for considering how these staging practices operate and how they might (and might not) correspond. HGTV's programming offers a prominent and consistent image of race-blind access to home ownership for all populations, including those long excluded from the centerpiece of the American dream. It [End Page 537] stages racial difference in commodity form to construct a coalition viewership in lieu of the mass national audience once claimed by television channels for sale to advertisers. In a time of financial crisis associated with mortgage default, this has opened the channel to accusations of indiscriminately encouraging home investment to unqualified buyers, more broadly constructed as overreaching minority beneficiaries of government assistance.
Yet a closer look at HGTV's programming reveals it has been remarkably successful in arranging the textual representations it programs to offer not just lessons in commodity culture but also a peak behind private doors, imaginatively staging for viewers the possibility of access, control, and presence. In the context of increasingly global, increasingly abstract, highly financialized ways of being in the world, this textual staging offers much more than lessons in the mundanities of middle-class life: it also offers a way to imagine participation and proximity to others. It effaces the reality of a continuing legacy of significant racial disparities in access to this middle-class life by staging the way to imagine it as accessible to all.
Of course for HGTV, the point has been to make television, not reproduce reality. Yet knowing that reality TV, in shows like House Hunters, is the end product of a series of stagings, that it is constructed, allows us to consider the specific priorities directing its construction and how that construction has circulated and become meaningful. Producing "shelter TV" that is reassuring and comforting allows racial difference to feature as product differentiation, even amid alarmist targeting of the channel's supposedly duped viewers. In this context a program like House Hunters has no less efficacy for being staged; it has more.
Shawn Shimpach teaches film studies and media studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he is assistant professor in the Department of Communication and a core faculty member in the Interdepartmental Program in Film Studies. He is author of the book Television in Transition: The Life and Afterlife of the Narrative Action Hero (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
1. Jim Sollisch, "Blame Television for the Bubble," Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2009, 7.
2. Ron Becker, "Horribly Guilty Television," Flow, April 24, 2008, http://flowtv.org/2008/04/horribly-guilty-television-hgtv-and-the-promotion-of-americas-ownership-society/.
3. Brian Stelter, "Reality Check for Real Estate Shows," New York Times, May 24, 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/arts/television/24stel.html?pagewanted=all.
4. Alessandra Stanley, "On HGTV, Fixing Home and Hearts," New York Times, March 18, 2010, http://tv.nytimes.com/2010/03/18/arts/television/18hgtv.html?ref=alessandrastanley.
5. Quoted in Stelter, "Reality Check." See also "25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis," www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1877351_1877350_1877332,00.html (accessed August 23, 2011).
6. See, for example, www.reuters.com/article/2009/02/27/idUS193520+27-Feb-2009+BW20090227 (accessed August 31, 2011). [End Page 538]
7. See U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics website: http://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNU04000000?years_option=all_years&periods_option=specific_periods&periods=Annual+Data (accessed September 3, 2011).
8. See, for example, www.businessweek.com/the_thread/hotproperty/archives/2009/01/over_one_millio.html (accessed August 31, 2011).
9. For details, see http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html (accessed September 9, 2011).
10. Toby Miller, Makeover Nation: The United States of Reinvention (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008), 9.
11. See, for example, Wayne Freidman, "Cablers History, FX on Upswing, While CNBC, Fox News Plummet," MediaDailyNews, March 1, 2011, www.mediapost.com/publications/?fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=145905&passFuseAction=PublicationsSearch.showSearchReslts&art_searched=hgtv&page_number=0.
12. See, for example, Jeremy J. Seigel, "The Lehman Crisis: An Unhappy Anniversary," Business Week, September 20, 2009, www.businessweek.com/investor/content/sep2009/pi20090918_770685.htm?chan=investing_investing+index+page_top+stories.
13. Scripps Networks CEO Ken Lowe, speaking to investors about HGTV's (it turns out, fairly brief) ratings decline in 2009. Quoted in David Goetzl, "HGTV Adjusts Shows to Match Consumer Experience," MediaDailyNews, September 23, 2010, www.mediapost.com/publications/index.cfm?fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=136313&passFuseAction=PublicationsSearch.showSearchReslts&art_searched=hgtv&page_number=2.
14. Ruth McElroy, "Property TV: The (Re)making of Home on National Screens," European Journal of Cultural Studies 11.1 (2008): 44.
17. Becker, "Horribly Guilty Television."
18. Scripps's interesting history is worth exploring. See, for example, Gerald J. Baldasty, E.W. Scripps and the Business of Newspapers (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999).
19. Daisy Whitney, "Marketers Feel at Home in Shelter TV," Advertising Age, April 5, 2004, S4. The extent to which their intentions have been fulfilled might be discerned from a 2010 study of 225 advertising media executives, in which 75 percent found HGTV to be a "desirable programming environment on which to advertise." See Wayne Friedman, "Ad Execs See Higher Cable Ad Budgets, ESPN, Food Top List," MediaDailyNews, March 16, 2011, www.mediapost.com/publications/?fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=146818&passFuseAction=PublicationsSearch.showSearchReslts&art_searched=hgtv&page_number=0.
20. Sasha Torres, "Television and Race," in A Companion to Television, ed. Janet Wasko (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005), 395-408.
22. See www.wbur.org/npr/135353192/if-youre-looking-for-a-little-diversity-on-television-try-hgtv (accessed March 30, 2012).
23. Leslie Cauley, "Scripps Quickly Proves an Outsider Can Start a Cable-TV Network," Wall Street Journal, November 13, 1998.
24. The HGTV website reports "over 89 million" (www.hgtv.com/about-us/about-us/index.html [accessed August 27, 2011]). Parent company Scripps Networks Interactive's website instead reports "more than 99 million U.S. household as of February 2011" (http://scrippsnetworks.com/newsitem.aspx?id=90 [accessed September 2, 2011]). Other sources suggest as many as "100 million subscribers." See "HGTV Remodel Rolls with Changing Landscape: Cable Net Spruces Up Its Lineup after Housing Bust," Daily Variety, October 18, 2010, 14; and Wayne Friedman, "Scripps Cable Nets Feasts on Higher Revs," MediaDailyNews, August 9, 2011, www.mediapost.com/publications/?fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=155578&passFuseAction=PublicationsSearch.showSearchReslts&art_searched=hgtv&page_num-ber=0.
26. David Goetzl, "Scripps Spins Off TV Section," MediaDailyNews, July 2, 2008, www.mediapost.com/publications/index.cfm?fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=85893&passFuseAction=PublicationsSearch.showSearchReslts&art_searched=hgtv&page_number=6. [End Page 539]
27. Formerly Fine Living, but rebranded after the financial crisis. See David Goetzl, "New Dish: Fine Living Rebranded as Cooking Channel," MediaDailyNews, October 8, 2009, www.mediapost.com/publications/index.cfm?fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=115124&passFuseAction=PublicationsSearch.showSearchReslts&art_searched=hgtv&page_number=4.
29. See "HGTV Remodel Rolls with Changing Landscape."
30. Andrew Ross, "The Mental Labor Problem," Social Text 18.2 (2002): 6.
31. Allison Romano, "Table Scraps," Broadcasting and Cable, July 26, 2004, 1.
32. Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Fontana, 1974).
33. John Hartley, Uses of Television (London: Routledge, 1999), 105.
34. Ibid. See also Williams, Television; John McMurria, "Desperate Citizens and Good Samaritans: Neoliberalism and Makeover Reality TV," Television and New Media 9.4 (2008): 305-32; James Hay, "Too Good to Fail: Managing Financial Crisis through the Moral Economy of Realty TV," Journal of Communication Inquiry 34.4 (2010): 382-402; and Shawn Shimpach, "Viewing," in The Handbook of Media Audiences, ed. Virginia Nightingale (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 62-85.
35. Hartley, Uses of Television, 107.
36. At least one was both! See David Harnden-Warwick, "HGTV Program or Film about Human Trafficking?" McSweeney's, www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/hgtv-program-or-film-about-human-trafficking (accessed July 15, 2011).
37. McElroy, "Property TV," 44.
38. Hay, "Too Good to Fail."
39. Randy Martin, An Empire of Indifference: American War and the Financial Logic of Risk Management (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007), 37.
40. Gina Bellafante, "Every Home's a Castle, Cinderella," New York Times, June 5, 2011, www.ny-times.com/2011/06/06/arts/television/for-hgtv-and-bravo-the-housing-market-is-still-booming.html?scp=2&sq=gina%20bellafante%20every%20home's%20a%20castle&st=Search.
41. McMurria, "Desperate Citizens and Good Samaritans."
42. Whitney, "Marketers Feel at Home," S4.
43. Cauley, "Scripps Quickly Proves an Outsider Can Start a Cable-TV Network."
45. Randy Martin, Financialization of Daily Life (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), 19.
46. Anna McCarthy, "Reality Television: A Neoliberal Theater of Suffering," Social Text 25.4 (2007): 17-41.
47. Mark Andrejevic, Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).
48. Daniel McGinn, "With Lust in Our Hearts," Newsweek, January 14, 2008. The article ran in the real estate section, as an excerpt from McGinn's 2008 book House Lust: America's Obsession with Our Homes (New York: Currency Books/Doubleday, 2008).
49. Hay, "Too Good to Fail."
50. See Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, Better Living through Reality TV (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2008).
51. Martin, Financialization of Daily Life, 16-17.
52. Hay, "Too Good to Fail."
53. Charlotte Brunsdon, "Lifestyling Britain: The 8-9 Slot on British Television," International Journal of Cultural Studies 6.5 (2003): 17-18.
54. Linda Holmes, "If You're Looking for a Little Diversity on Television, Try HGTV," April 13, 2011, www.wbur.org/npr/135353192/if-youre-looking-for-a-little-diversity-on-television-try-hgtv.
55. Anna Everett, "Trading Private and Public Spaces @ HGTV and TLC: On New Genre Formations in Transformation TV," Journal of Visual Culture 3.2 (2004): 157-81.
56. McElroy, "Property TV," 57.
57. Holmes, "If You're Looking for a Little Diversity on Television."
58. Sasha Torres, "Television and Race," in A Companion to Television, ed. Janet Wasko (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005), 403.
59. Robert Bianco, "Critic's Corner," USA Today, June 27, 2011, 6.
60. Peg Tyre, "Watch the Paint Dry!" Newsweek, November 18, 2002, 64.
61. Alan J. Heavens, "Realty TV Changed the Reality of Buying a House," Philadelphia Inquirer, May 21, 2010. [End Page 540]
62. Brian Stelter, "Housing Slump Helps the Draw of Fixer-Upper TV," New York Times, June 12, 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/06/12/business/media/12flip.html?scp=1&sq=Brian%20stelter%20hous-ing%20slump%20helps&st=Search.
63. McElroy, "Property TV," 50.
64. Ibid., 57.
65. John Thornton Caldwell, Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 58.
66. Patricia Saperstein, "Pie Town Delivers Product for Varied Tastes," Daily Variety, December 14, 1999, A16.
67. Carolyn Kellogg, "House Hunting the Globe from Your Comfy Couch," Los Angeles Times, July 24, 2011, D1.
69. Georg Szalai, "Food Network Ratings Drop 10% in Key Demo," Hollywood Reporter, January 20, 2011, www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/food-network-ratings-drop-10-73923.
70. Brian Steinberg, "Home-Improvement TV Still Going Strong on Cable Despite Soft Market," Advertising Age, July 24, 2011, 13.
71. Saperstein, "Pie Town Delivers Product," A16.
72. Kellogg, "House Hunting the Globe," D1.
73. In 2008 Suzanne Whang left the series and the program has since operated without a host, instead sufficing with merely a disembodied narrator (frequently the voice-over artist Colette Whitaker).
74. Saperstein, "Pie Town Delivers Product," A16.
75. Quoted in McGinn, "With Lust in Our Hearts." The article ran in the real estate section, as an excerpt from McGinn's 2008 book House Lust: America's Obsession with Our Homes.
76. On incredibly rare occasions, more prevalent on International, an episode will end without the house hunter taking occupancy—usually explained by unusually slow or complex "foreign" real estate protocols, more rarely still by the house hunter's apparent apathy.
77. Although anyone familiar with the production of so-called unscripted television should not really be shocked, this realization has become something of a point of conversation for many fans of the program. See, for example, http://hookedonhouses.net/2010/06/02/the-truth-about-house-hunters-on-hgtv/ or www.associatedcontent.com/article/1167564/the_top_five_hgtv_shows.html?cat=6 (accessed July 25, 2011).
79. Mary Ellen Podmolik, "In Reality, Those Real Estate Shows Are Really Fake," Chicago Tribune, December 4, 2009, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2009-12-04/entertainment/0912020969_1_reality-television-real-estate-agent.
80. See www.census.gov/hhes/www/housing/hvs/annual09/ann09t22.xls (accessed March 30, 2012).
81. Paula Chakravartty and Dan Schiller, "Global Financial Crisis: Neoliberal Newspeak and Digital Capitalism in Crisis," International Journal of Communication 4 (2010): 670-92.
82. McGinn, "With Lust in Our Hearts."
83. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2005), xxxvii.
84. "The Gentleman's Bailout," Nation, April 7, 2008, 3-4; and "Wall Street Crisis," Economist, March 22, 2008, 11-12; both cited in Toby Miller, Makeover Nation: The United States of Reinvention (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008), 8.
85. For examples of such a treatment, see Fredric Jameson, "Culture and Finance Capital," Critical Inquiry 24.1 (1997): 246-65; Benjamin Lee and Edward LiPuma, "Cultures of Circulation: The Imaginations of Modernity," Public Culture 14.1 (2002): 191-213, expanded and published as Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee, Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004).
88. Caitlin Zaloom notes that at the same time this also "creates an opportunity to transform the social arrangement of the market, bringing in the women and minorities whose identity-based 'perspectives' now orient the collectivity of the market" (Zaloom, "Markets and Machines: Work in the Technological Sensoryscapes of Finance," American Quarterly 58.3 : 827). [End Page 541]
89. Jyotsna Kapur, "Capital Limits on Creativity: Neoliberalism and Its Uses of Art," Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 53, Summer 2011, www.ejumpcut.org/currentissue/kleinhans-creatIndus/index.html.
91. Zaloom, "Markets and Machines," 815-37.
92. K. Knorr Cetina and U. Bruegger, "Global Microstructures: The Virtual Societies of Financial Markets," American Journal of Sociology 107.4 (2002): 924.
93. Chakravartty and Schiller, "Global Financial Crisis."
94. Martin, Financialization of Daily Life, 123.
95. Emphasis added. Zaloom, "Markets and Machines," 833; see also Donald MacKenzie and Yuval Millo, "Negotiating a Market, Performing Theory: The Historical Sociology of a Financial Derivatives Exchange," American Journal of Sociology 109.1 (2003): 108; Michel Callon, ed., The Laws of the Markets (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 2. [End Page 542]