The one HGTV show that leans into the idea of community – but does so through the context of single-family homes

Home Town is one of the big shows on HGTV and it has a premise somewhat different from the other headliners: all of the renovations take place in or near Laurel, Mississippi. The couple in the show, Ben and Erin Napier, say they enjoy contributing to a town that they love:

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The town of Laurel (population 18,338) itself is a starring character in “Home Town,” and it’s a huge part of what keeps the Napiers grounded. “Everybody here knows us,” says Ben. “When we’re in places like New York, Atlanta, Nashville or (Los Angeles) and people stop us on the streets …” Finishing his thought, Erin says, “It’s very surprising.”

Laurel, located about 90 miles southeast of Jackson, was founded in 1882 and flourished thanks to the timber industry (the region is known as the state’s Pine Belt). Mills and factories followed, bringing economic prosperity. Even now, the town boasts the state’s largest collection of early 1900s residential architecture. But as companies moved their operations offshore seeking a cheaper bottom line, the town languished. When the Napiers planted roots in 2008, there was virtually nothing to draw visitors or locals, with vacant storefronts lining the brick streets. Still, they saw its potential and looked for ways to support it, with Ben volunteering with economic and preservation organization Laurel Main Street.

Now, thanks in no small part to the success of the show, “People come to visit Laurel every day, and that’s amazing. It’s incredible. It’s why we agreed to do the show,” says Ben. 

Even with the community focus and the history they provide for each property, the show still takes a classic HGTV approach to the bulk of the episode: it is all about the single-family home under renovation. There are limited shots of the street. There are limited views of the rest of the community. There are no neighbors in view. Most of what we see if of the interior rooms, the facade, and sometimes the rear yard. The new owners move in and presumably live a private happy life ever after.

Slowly rehabbing the housing stock of a community plus bringing visitors is a laudable thing. Many small towns in the United States need attention. Many HGTV shows focus on wealthier suburbs or urban neighborhoods where housing prices are already good and people have money to make the homes even better. The housing in Laurel is not what many would want in growing communities but it represents the housing that is found in many American communities.

Can a show truly be about community when the primary focus are interior private spaces? Home Town offers a variation of HGTV’s relatively anonymous single-family homes but it might only be a veneer of community and not a true transformation.

Change how album sales are measured, change perceptions of popular music

The music industry changed in 1991 when how album sales were measured changed:

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On May 25, 1991—30 years ago Tuesday—Billboard started using Nielsen SoundScan data to build its album chart, with all of its charts, including singles hub The Hot 100, eventually following suit. Meaning, the magazine started counting album sales with scanners and computers and whatnot, and not just calling up record stores one at a time and asking them for their individual counts, often a manual and semi-accurate and flagrantly corrupt process. This is the record industry’s Moneyball moment, its Eureka moment, its B.C.-to-A.D. moment. A light bulb flipping on. The sun rising. We still call this the SoundScan Era because by comparison the previous era might as well have been the Dark Ages.

First SoundScan revelation: Albums opened like movies, so for anything with an established fan base, that first week is usually, by far, the biggest. First beneficiary: Skid Row. And why not? “Is Skid Row at the height of their imperial period?” Molanphy asks of this ’91 moment. “For Skid Row, yes. But Skid Row is not Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, or Stevie Wonder. Skid Row is a middle-of-the-road hair-metal band at the peak of their powers, relatively speaking. So it’s not as if they are commanding the field. It’s just the fans all showed up in week no. 1, and it debuts at no. 1. And then we discover, ‘Oh, this is going to happen every week. This is not special anymore.’”

Next SoundScan revelation: Hard rock and heavy metal were way more popular than anybody thought. Same deal with alternative rock, R&B, and most vitally, rap and country. In June 1991, N.W.A’s second album, Efil4zaggin, hit no. 1 after debuting at no. 2 the previous week. That September, Garth Brooks’s third album, the eventually 14-times-platinum Ropin’ the Wind, debuted at no. 1, the week after Metallica’s eventually 16-times-platinum self-titled Black Album debuted there. In early January 1992, Nirvana’s Nevermind, released in September ’91, replaced MJ’s Dangerous in the no. 1 spot, a generational bellwether described at the time by Billboard itself as an “astonishing palace coup.”

Virtually overnight, SoundScan changed the rules on who got to be a mega, mega superstar, and the domino effect—in terms of magazine covers, TV bookings, arena tours, and the other spoils of media attention and music-industry adulation—was tremendous, if sometimes maddeningly slow in coming. Garth, Metallica, N.W.A, Nirvana, and Skid Row were already hugely popular, of course. But SoundScan revealed exactly how popular, which of course made all those imperial artists exponentially more popular.

This is all about measurement – boring measurement! – but it is a fascinating story. Thinking from a cultural production perspective, here are three things that stand out to me:

  1. This was prompted in part by a technology change involving computers, scanners, and inventory systems. The prior system of calling some record sales and getting their sales clearly has problems. But, how to get to all music being sold? This requires some coordination and technology across many settings.
  2. The change in measurement led to changes in how people understood the music industry. What genres are popular? What artists are hot? How often do artists have debut #1 albums as opposed to getting discovered by the public and climbing the charts? Better data changed how people perceived music.
  3. The change in measurement not only changed perceptions; it had cascading effects. The Matthew Effect suggests small initial differences can lead to widening outcomes when actors are treated differently in those early stages. When the new measurement system highlighted different artists, they got more attention.

Summary: some might say that good music is good music but how we obtain data and information about music and then act upon that information influences what we music we promote and listen to.

Misplaced nostalgia in Cars for the pre-Interstate days

On a recent rewatching of the Pixar film Cars, I was reminded of something that bothered me at my first viewing soon after the movie came out in theaters. Here is the issue: one of the key points of the plot is that the small town of Radiator Springs suffered when Interstate 40 opened nearby. But, the film makes clear that the issue is the interstate, not driving in general.

This movie celebrates driving. The main character, Lighting McQueen, is an ascendent race car and he needs to rediscover his love of the road. He does this after getting stuck in Radiator Springs. The combination of relationships, the lanscape, and a reorganizing of priorities helps him see that driving should be fun and relaxed, not just about winning and being brash.

The Interstate represents all that is bad. McQueen gets into trouble when he is accidentally dumped off on the side of the Interstate and gets lost. Radiator Springs is just a shell of itself because all the traffic that used to come through town now just whizzes by on the Interstate. Route 66, the road of quirky local establishments, small towns, and vistas, gives way to the straight and multi-lane highway where people just want to go as fast as they can to get to the real destinations.

The movie says everything went wrong with the Interstate. Its emphasis on efficiency came at the cost of communities. It left places behind; not just urban neighborhoods where new highways bulldozed homes and establishments but also small towns in the middle of the desert. McQueen would have left it behind too if he wasn’t forced to stay.

Is the real problem the Interstate or an American way of life built around driving? Sure, the Interstate promotes faster driving but cars themselves promote a different kind of life, one lived at faster speeds. Small towns can force people to look a little more closely with reduced speed limits and speed traps. But, they cannot force them to stop or to care or not just stop at a fast food joint and filling station and get back to the road quickly.

Once Americans had cars in large numbers, they wanted to go places. The open road offered opportunities. Some will want to drive and take their time. Some will want to get places as quickly as possible. Others just need to get from Point A and Point B to do what they need to do on a daily basis. Some of the car commercials I see today make me laugh as they try to say that a sportier exterior or 50 more horsepower transform the daily commute; how many people today really love driving?

Or, how many Americans really like small towns? They may hold it out as an ideal but the population shifts in the last century – both shaped and echoed by the Interstates – have been to metropolitan areas, particularly suburbs. Radiator Springs might be nostalgic and an interesting place to visit. But, it is not the place many would choose as they prefer other amenities including the jobs present across metropolitan regions.

All together, Radiator Springs and its ilk would not likely spring back to life just because the Interstate disappears. Indeed, it is revived in part by the end of the movie because people can get to it via the Interstate and they are drawn initially by the celebrity of Lightning McQueen. Now, Radiator Springs can be a tourist destination and some residents may even rue the day when new residents want to move in and new development threatens what the community once was. Here, cars are both the problem and the answer and without a broader discussion about cars and driving, Americans may just be stuck between wanting places like Radiator Springs to survive and the need to drive quickly to the next opportunity in life.

The improbably straight hallway outside Seinfeld’s apartment door

Residences on famous television shows can become very familiar. Yet, these places do not always match reality. On Seinfeld, Jerry’s apartment appears to have some discrepancies with how his apartment building is depicted:

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Reddit user PixelMagic has revealed (in a post we first came across at Indy100) the dark lie of Seinfeld. Jerry’s home can’t exist in the real world. Not if you believe in basic rules of time and space. You can see why in an overhead rendering of the apartment. If you actually built it to these specifications, the outside hall would need to run through Jerry’s kitchen.

Your instinct might be to say the hallway must have been curved. That was my first reaction. Lots of other Reddit users said the same thing too. If you look at screenshots of certain episodes, that does seem plausible. In certain moments the area between Jerry and Kramer’s apartments seems small enough that it could form a little cove. As you walk away from Jerry’s door, the hall could bend away from the kitchen.

But once again, “The Strongbox” is here to ruin Jerry’s life. That was the episode when Jerry kept inadvertently torturing his building mate Phil. Poor Phil owned a parrot that choked to death on the strongbox key Kramer hid in his food dish.

As PixelMagic showed, that episode provides indisputable evidence that Jerry’s hall did not curve away from his door.

This is a common issue on television shows. For example, see earlier posts about the Brady Bunch house or the apartment on Friends and other shows depicting young people living it up in the city. The primary focus on shows is to provide a home environment that works for the characters and filming, not necessarily one that fits reality or spaces common seen in these locations.

At the same time, consistent hiccups between what is depicted and what is actually possible can create issues down the road for viewers. Even if those watching to not consciously spend time dwelling on the physical spaces of a show or start drawing up floor plans to explore the particulars, spending all of those hours watching Seinfeld could shape how one views apartments and cities. Is this how people live in apartments? Is this what New York City is really like?

Paying to dirty and clean up your (Sims) house

Players of The Sims can now pay for the ability to dust and vacuum their homes in the game:

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In March, EA released new ways to enhance your Sims 4 experience called “kits,” which are more scaled down and less expensive than the game’s other downloadable content packs. Two of those kits, Country Kitchen and Throwback Fit, are pretty straightforward furniture and clothing packs that add new customization options to the game. In The Sims, you are essentially keeping these virtual people alive and designing their entire existence, from clothing to homes—these kits just offer a little more variety. But Bust the Dust is a little different than the rest, in that its primary purpose is to make your Sims’ lives dirtier. “Dust off the vacuum and tidy up in The Sims™ 4 Bust the Dust Kit!” the kit’s description boasts, making a mockery of the exclamation point by using it to try to sell one of the very worst IRL chores…

What makes Bust the Dust unusual is not just that it adds the new element of household grime to the game, but that it also only adds the new element of household grime to the game. Roaches and dog poop are very minor features of the aforementioned expansion packs, and even a more narrowly focused pack like Laundry Day, which gives your Sims the ability to wash their clothes, comes with a bunch of furniture and some new looks.But Bust the Dust isn’t interested in bells and whistles. It’s just … dust.

Maybe that’s not totally fair. The kit also provides vacuums you can buy (to bust the dust) and new character aspirations (so your Sims know how to feel about the dust and busting it). But mostly, paying $5 gets you a bunch of virtual dust, which accumulates over time on the floors of your Sim’s house, both in a thin coating and in interactive clumps around the room. Early reviews last month complained that the dust accumulated way too quickly—within a matter of in-game hours—but it took around two and a half in-game days for my house to go from clean to dusty. My Sim was thrilled when this happened, because it made the house feel “homey,” and presumably because Sims can’t have asthma. Around this time, a dust bunny moved in and became a kind of companion that you can feed (it eats dust) and pet (which again, is sentient dust).

One of the marks of adulting is the need to clean up after yourself. Dishes need to be washed. Laundry needs to be picked up, cleaned, and put away. Bathrooms need scrubbing. Dusting and vacuuming need to be done.

So why try to replicate this in a game? I suppose this is the point of the franchise: to simulate daily life. The various Sim titles over the years have replicated city building, ant life, towers, and more for multiple decades. Isn’t cleaning up part of daily life just as building water pipes?

Perhaps the odd thing here is paying for the luxury of doing this. The “Bust the Dust” is an add-on. And was this the plan all along: to get more money from users for the ability to clean? There are some people who like to clean. Some who will want the complete simulation. Others will want the twists here (you can feed the dust bunnies?). Some might have never known they wanted this until it became an option.

The commodification of the world continues: you can play a computer game where you pay to dirty and clean your house. Does it inspire players to stop the game and clean their own house? Does it stimulate the imagination? Maybe it is just fun to take what is often a mundane task and play it out on a screen.

The difficulty of measuring TV watching (COVID-19 and otherwise)

Nielsen and TV networks are sparring over Nielsen data that suggests fewer people are watching television during COVID-19:

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Through the trade group Video Advertising Bureau, the networks are perplexed by Nielsen statistics that show the percentage of Americans who watched their televisions at least some time during the week declined from 92% in 2019 to 87% so far this year.

Besides being counter-intuitive in the pandemic era, the VAB says that finding runs counter to other evidence, including viewing measurements from set-top cable boxes, the increased amount of streaming options that have become available and a jump in sales for television sets…

The number of families, particularly large families, participating in Nielsen measurements has dropped over the past year in percentages similar to the decrease in viewership, Cunningham said. Nielsen acknowledges that its sample size is smaller — the company is not sending personnel into homes because of COVID-19 — but said statistics are being weighted to account for the change…

More people are spending time on tablets and smartphones, which aren’t measured by Nielsen. The podcast market is soaring. Sports on television was interrupted. Due to production shutdowns, television networks were airing far more reruns, Nielsen said.

This sounds like a coming together of long-term trends and short-term realities. The long-term trends include people engaging with media across a wider range of devices, it takes work to measure all of their viewing and finding people to participate in any data collection, and there are a lot of entertainment choices competing with television. In the short-term, COVID-19 pushed people home but it disrupted their typical patterns.

Will this affect the long-running place television has in the everyday lives of Americans? Even as of 2018, Nielsen reported that the average American watched more than 4 hours of television a day. TV might be conveyed through different formats – streaming, handheld devices, etc. – but it is still a powerful force and a significant use of time.

At the same time, how TV is consumed and how this affects what television means could be quite different moving forward. Watching streaming television on a smartphone while commuting is a very different experience than sitting on the couch after dinner for an hour or two and watching a big-screen TV. Teasing out these differences takes some work but a new and/or younger generation of TV viewers might have quite a disparate relationship with television.

How a fictional psychiatrist turned radio host lives in a swanky Seattle condo

Television residents do not always match reality. One writer set out to find how Frasier Crane lived in such a large and well-appointed residence in Seattle:

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While characters living in unrealistically spacious apartments is a sitcom mainstay, the extravagance of Frasier’s apartment is central to the show, rather than an incidental. Frasier, ever class-conscious, takes great pride in furnishing his condo in the Elliott Bay Towers because it’s how he expresses his refined sensibilities. What better way to show off his yuppie bona fides than an Eames chair and a Wassily, a Le Corbusier lamp, a Chihuly vase, many questionable global artifacts, and, as he brags in the pilot, a couch that is “an exact replica of the one Coco Chanel had in her Paris atelier”? As a 1994 Chicago Tribune article points out, the decor choices were extremely deliberate—and extremely pricey…

From the available numbers, I learned that in 1989, the average salary for a psychiatrist was $117,700. Though Frasier likely would have made less starting out and more by the end of his tenure, for the sake of simplifying things, let’s say he worked that job at that salary from 1983 through 1993. If he saved the recommended 20% of his income during this period, he would have $235,400 stashed away at the end of that 10-year period—of course, this is before taxes…

“We talked about, ‘If anybody wonders how he can afford this it’s because Frasier has an investment income,’” Keenan told me. “He made a fair amount of money in Boston as a private therapist and he lectured and he wrote articles and he just invested very well. And at one point somebody said, ‘He’s from Seattle, maybe he got in on the ground floor of Microsoft.’ Little dividends arrived to augment what he was making in the station.”…

Keenan also pointed out that Frasier wouldn’t have seemed as wealthy compared to Niles, who lived in a “preposterously baronial house” thanks to Maris’s money. Plus, to an unfamiliar audience, “radio host” would have probably seemed like a pretty impressive and well-paying job.

In other words, the viewer should not ask so many questions. Just enjoy the show.

Seriously though, I could imagine a few additional points of explanation:

  1. Perhaps there was some unusual circumstance around the acquisition of the condo. Given the strange circumstances Frasier could get himself into, this is not hard to imagine. A short sale. Some gift or reduced price from a thankful client. He used his dad’s pension money from working as a cop. There could be lots of ways to explain this given the hijinks of the show.
  2. Frasier might have saved some money from good investments or had some extra earnings. At the same time, his character is not exactly one who makes wise long-term decisions. Was he smart enough to employ a good investment fund manager? Did he fall into some money (such as Microsoft stock as hinted above)?
  3. Frasier needs this condo as part of who he is. The expensive items, the preening tastes, the haughtiness are all tied to a pattern of conspicuous consumption. He likes to show off and does so with what he owns, including his residence. And the running gag with his father’s old chair does not work without everything attesting to Frasier’s acquisition habits.
  4. What other residence would suit Frasier? A single-family home in the suburbs? A tacky show of impressiveness like the home of his brother? A smaller city bachelor pad?

Facebook continues to claim it is about “meaningful social interactions”

Members of Congress questioned leaders of social media companies this week. In contrast to what legislators suggested, Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook has one particular goal:

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Focusing on the attention-driven business model seems to have been a coordinated strategy among the committee’s Democrats, but they were not alone. Bill Johnson, a Republican from Ohio, compared the addictiveness of social platforms to cigarettes. “You profit from hooking users on your platforms by capitalizing off their time,” he said, addressing Dorsey and Zuckerberg. “So yes or no: Do you agree that you make money off of creating an addiction to your platforms?”

Both executives said no. As they did over and over again, along with Pichai, when asked straightforwardly whether their platforms’ algorithms are optimized to show users material that will keep them engaged. Rather than defend their companies’ business model, they denied it.

Zuckerberg, in particular, suggested that maximizing the amount of time users spend on the platform is the furthest thing from his engineers’ minds. “It’s a common misconception that our teams even have goals of trying to increase the amount of time that people spend,” he said. The company’s true goal, he insisted, is to foster “meaningful social interactions.” Misinformation and inflammatory content actually thwarts that goal. If users are spending time on the platform, it simply proves that the experience is so meaningful to them. “Engagement,” he said, “is only a sign that if we deliver that value, then it will be natural that people use our services more.”

Zuckerberg has said this for years; see this earlier post. Facebook and other social media platforms have the opportunity to bring people together, whether that is through building upon existing relationships or interacting with new people based on common interests and causes.

Has Facebook delivered on this promise? Do social media users find “meaningful social interactions”? The research I have done with Peter Mundey suggests emerging adult users are aware of the downsides of social media interactions but many still participate because there is meaning or enough meaning.

I suppose it might come down to defining and measuring “meaningful social interaction.” Social interaction can take many forms, ranging from carrying on social media mediated relationships through simply viewing images and text over time to less personal interaction in commenting on or registering a reaction to something like hundreds of others to direct interaction to people through various means. Is a negative response meaningful? Does a positive direct interaction count more? Can the interaction be more episodic or is it sustained over a certain period of time?

One possible path: ask for the evidence of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat users (among others) having meaningful interactions alongside evidence of how these platforms count and measure capturing attention. Another: ask whether these companies think they have succeeded in creating “meaningful social interactions” and what they would cite as markers of this.

Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as the ultimate expression of American individualism?

A while back, I encountered Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way” two different ways. In one instance, a radio host closed out an eight year run by playing the song and reflecting on the years of conversation. In the second instance, another person thought about their life thus far and used some of the words from the song to wonder what life might hold by the end.

Here is my sociological question: does this song represent American individualism in the twentieth century?

Americans are known for their individualism. For example, the sociological study Habits of the Heart examined how individualism plays out in the realm of religion and spirituality. President Donald Trump played “My Way” for the first dance at the Inauguration Ball and the song played when he left Joint Andrews Base in January 2021.

Take these two paragraphs from the song:

Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption

I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

This is a man reflecting on a full life. He planned it, he executed it, and did it “my way.” Later in the song:

I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried
I’ve had my fill my share of losing
And now, as tears subside
I find it all so amusing

To think I did all that
And may I say – not in a shy way
Oh no, oh no, not me
I did it my way

Similarly, thinking about the emotional aspects of life, the singer notes that he was not shy and “I did it my way.”

It would be hard for any single cultural work to stand in for an entire people or country. Yet, at the same time, there are certain works that become popular, stand the test of time, and embody particular values and practices. Is “My Way” one of these songs or does it fit a particular subset of Americans better than others?

Have I have seen that building before…on a studio backlot?

A recent WBEZ story highlighted the country’s first juvenile institution in Chicago. Here is the front of the building:

As soon as I saw this image, it reminded me of something I had seen on a tour years ago of the Warner Brothers backlot. Here is what I saw:

These buildings are not the same. But, their spirit is similar. They sit at an oddly-angled corner that gives the front entrance of the building a unique look. There are columns or pillars at the front. The buildings have a similar shape and set of materials even though they are slightly different. The backlot building has a subway entrance (from New York?) in front.

My experience with these structures hints at two larger processes at work:

  1. My memory is not quite perfect yet it is grouping similar buildings together. How many buildings in major American cities have this kind of look on this kind of corner?
  2. Linking to some of my research, how much do television and film depictions of place interact with our corporeal understandings of places? I can see a building on a screen, experience that same place or a similar place, and our brain and understandings then interact. Or, perhaps we may only know of a place through screen depictions and this backlot building in various forms stands in for all sorts of real settings.

I will keep looking for the Warner Brothers building on screen and continue to think through what it means for my understanding of Chicago, New York, and other places.