HGTV is the third highest rated cable network after “embrac[ing] the real America” and avoiding conflict

American viewers – at least those still paying for cable – like what HGTV is showing:

The escapist appeal of looking at other people’s beautiful homes turned Home & Garden Television into the third most-watched cable network in 2016, ahead of CNN and behind only Fox News and ESPN. Riding HGTV’s reality shows, parent company Scripps Networks Interactive Inc. has seen its shares rise more than 30 percent this year, outperforming bigger rivals like Walt Disney Co., 21st Century Fox Inc. and Viacom Inc.

HGTV’s formula is relentlessly consistent: a shabby house gets a makeover, and a happy couple moves in. A variation on the theme — house-flipping for fun and profit — works too. The network has aired 23 different flipping shows over the past few years. Today “Flip or Flop” and “Masters of Flip” run in prime time…

“If you watch a lot of our competitors, it’s about bling-y expensive real estate in New York or crazy flipping in L.A.,” said Scripps chief programming officer Kathleen Finch. “For the most part, our viewers live in suburban houses with yards. We embrace the real America.”…

The key, Scripps executives agree, is a refusal to upset HGTV’s audience. There’s no profanity, and on-air conflicts are confined to paint colors or tile choices. Instead of making the network feel trivial, its fans say, the relentlessly pleasant programming is a comfort, especially in hard times.

Americans like houses, both in terms of what they might aspire to themselves (the home may be their number one opportunity to define themselves) as well as knowing what their “neighbors” have (don’t those people on TV count as neighbors in today’s world of limited deep social ties?). The lack of open conflict could also tie in nicely with M. P. Baumgartner’s work The Moral Order of a Suburb which argued suburbanites create community by avoiding conflict.

I’m also intrigued by the idea that showing “the best side” of suburbanites could be a winning formula on television. I’ve been working on several projects in recent years about the depictions of suburbia on television. In the 1950s and early 1960s, there were numerous shows that presented everyday suburban life (obviously, a very sanitized white, upper middle class perspective) but since that period, many shows that do this are doing it with a wink and nod or to laugh at suburbanites. Do the fairly wealthy viewers of HGTV enjoy seeing themselves on screen when few other shows or TV networks offer such an opportunity?

Atomic Ranch magazine defends American ranch home

In a housing market full of architectural twists (McMansions? Stucco homes?), there are still people defending the humble ranch. One such outlet is Atomic Ranch.

Rambler-bashing was the norm when [Michelle Gringeri-Brown] and her husband, Jim Brown, launched Atomic Ranch magazine ( in 2004. At that time, ranch-style houses were dismissed as the ugly ducklings of design, the home of last resort for first-time buyers.

The magazine quickly became a cheerleader for simple postwar homes, advocating for their preservation and helping owners find home-improvement resources.

Now ranch-style homes are finding new fans who appreciate their clean lines and open floor plans. And the Browns have published their second coffeetable book, “Atomic Ranch: Midcentury Interiors” (Gibbs Smith, $40), a detailed look at eight drool-worthy homes and how their owners have reinvented them for 21st-century living. We caught up with writer/editor Gringeri-Brown at home in Portland, Ore., to seek her dos and don’ts for remodeling and decorating “the regular old ranch house.”

Q What’s making ranch houses retro cool?

A It remains generational. People who are attracted to a more retro house, with its original elements, tend to be in their late 20s and early 30s, and it can indicate a whole lifestyle — going to scooter rallies, bowling, “Mad Men” parties. With TV promoting it as cool, it’s not just your Aunt Edna’s crummy rambler. And by and large, they’re still more affordable than bungalows.

Q A few years ago, you were concerned about ranches being torn down to make way for McMansions. Has the real estate meltdown had a silver lining for ranch-house preservation?

A With the economy tanking, and flippers having to take a step back, fewer ranch homes are getting the Home Depot treatment, when everything becomes vanilla. There’s more appreciation of what they can be, less disregard and thinking this is a housing stock that should be cleaned out and Dwell-ified.

A new rallying cry: fight the McMansions to defend the ranch houses?

I wonder if people who dislike McMansions also tend to dislike ranches. Here are some similarities: both can be produced on a mass scale. They are often not aesthetically pleasing, McMansions for being a weird mash-up of styles while ranches are very functional. They both are associated with sprawl. (A more speculative thought: perhaps both are not terribly green?) From the other side, ranches may be functional and more modern but are they modern enough in comparison to houses built in a modernist style?

This seems like a classic example of celebrating American pragmatism (in house form).

McMansions don’t represent progressive home design

Here is a suggestion that McMansions are not in the best tradition of modern American architecture:


In the past American design was modern and the emerging architectural vernacular reflected that, from the Farnsworth to LA’s Case Study houses (such as the one pictured above) or to Eichler’s industrialisation of modernism, for the masses.

But now this has been replaced by a new version of the old, from McMansions to Pottery barn, Victorian design represents regression in the form of aspiration to a pre-industrial age, America’s current design prudery is a form of technological regression that is so pervasive, we should be very thankful for the brilliant exceptions such as Apple.

In this critique, the McMansion is simply recycled architecture, an example of our “design prudery.” I will grant that McMansions may borrow from older designs and may even do a poor job of combining multiple styles.

But, I think there could be a larger argument made here: Americans have been fairly resistant to modernist home designs. The functional and simple ranch may be the most modern home most Americans would consider. (Was there a historical point where home design really took a great leap forward or where it took a great leap back?) Thinking in Bourieu’s terms, are Americans more concerned with the functionality of homes rather than their aesthetic value?

This quick description of McMansions also leaves out another element: home design is also about status for homebuyers and residents. Older or established styles can confer a sense of permanency, history, and grandeur. Do Americans not like more modern home designs because it paints them in a negative light by suggesting they are elitist or too individualistic?

Attempting to set up an American style home lending system in Russia

Housing and mortgage industries can be quite different across countries. While many Americans might be quite used to our system (even though the system of 30 year mortgages we know now was a product of the mid-twentieth century), what happens when you try to apply the American system to another context? A sociologist looked at how this worked out in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union:

The new government tried to create a housing market by replicating the American housing system, essentially using the Federal National Mortgage Association, or Fannie Mae, as a template to encourage Russians to take out mortgage loans.

“This was all designed by USAID, one of their biggest foreign aid programs ever,” Zavisca said. “It was an American model of what a housing market is: home ownership and securitized mortgages.”

Supposedly all of that privatized housing and wealth would spur the natural development of a housing market. Those who felt they had more housing than they needed would look to trade down and use the leftover money for other things. The private sector would emerge to produce housing for those who had been left out.

“That didn’t really happen,” Zavisca said.

Housing construction declined by 70 percent from 1992 to 2002, the first decade after the Soviet era. The construction industry in Russia has evolved to cater to wealthy and well-to-do middle class clients who could pay with cash, but there is a lack of trust by both contractors and consumers. No one wants to pay up front and wait, or deal with credit.

Unlike Americans who for decades have willingly taken on 30-year mortgages to buy housing, Russians have largely balked at the notion. Even when young families were offered a $10,000 credit, roughly a year’s wages and the equivalent of $60,000 in the U.S., toward the down payment for a house, Zavisca said there was little interest.

“Few Russians are willing to take out mortgages because the risk of foreclosure is unacceptable, and because they view interest payments – which they call overpayments – as unfair. As one Russian put it: ‘To enter into a mortgage is to become a slave for 30 years, with the bank as your master.'”

That hasn’t stopped Russians from going into debt, though. They may be averse to mortgages but they love credit cards, small consumer loans and point-of-purchase store credit.

“In my interviews, people there often compared credit card debt favorably to mortgages, the inverse of here in the U.S., where mortgages are viewed as virtuous and responsible.

“Russia is completely the opposite. It may be a legacy of Soviet entitlement to housing, where housing is viewed as a right to them. Even thought the Soviet government owned the housing, people thought of it as their own and had the right to pass it down to their children, or swap with someone who wanted to trade with you.

“It was a kind of quasi-marketplace. It just wasn’t financialized.”

She said Russians find it odd that Americans call themselves “homeowners” from the day they close on a mortgage loan. For Russians, ownership only begins after all debts are paid off.

This suggests that our system may be more cultural than anything else. It goes beyond just being used to a particular set of economic and financial tools regarding homeownership; these instruments are backed by a particular set of cultural values that sees mortgages, and working hard to reach the point where one can afford a mortgage, as acceptable. The Russians may have a point here: one doesn’t technically own a home until the mortgage is paid and with the high rates of American mobility (moving roughly every 5-6 years on average), many homes are never truly owned.

It would be interesting to hear how Americans, in USAID or elsewhere, explained why this didn’t work in Russia. Have we tried implementing similar policies elsewhere and if so, how did those situations work out?

A home may no longer be a profitable investment

The housing crisis in America has prompted a number of commentators to again examine what it means to own a home. A number of sources I have read recently have suggested there was a large shift regarding American homes toward the end of the 20th century: people saw homes less as places to live and have a good life and instead viewed a home as an important investment from which they could continuously generate profits.

A New York Times article makes this argument as well, saying “many real estate experts now believe that home ownership will never again yield rewards like those enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century, when houses not only provided shelter but also a plump nest egg.”

If this is true, it could have profound impacts on community life. Perhaps owners will stay in homes longer, spending more money on their current homes while also maintaining local social relationships for longer periods. Perhaps the housing sector of the economy (everything from manufacturers to developers to real estate agents) will decline in importance to other sectors.

h/t Instapundit