HGTV cashes in on the popularity of the suburban Brady Bunch home

The iconic home of the Brady family on The Brady Bunch may have a number of confusing features but it is still popular: HGTV is working on a show about the renovation of the home.

The Studio City, Calif., residence was pictured in each episode before the camera took viewers inside the family’s abode. Those scenes, which featured, for example, the kitchen where housekeeper Alice (the late Ann B. Davis) dished out jokes or the girls’ bedroom, where Marcia Brady brushed her hair, were shot on a soundstage.

The house changed hands over the summer, when the network snapped up the property for an unknown price. (Former ‘N Sync member and Brady Bunch die-hard fan Lance Bass narrowly missed out on the place in a bidding war.)

HGTV revealed in August that it had placed the winning bid and would restore the home “to its 1970s glory” as part of a new show.

On Thursday, the network announced that A Very Brady Renovation is set to premiere in September 2019. Home renovation pros from HGTV will “reimagine the popular show’s interior set design, working to ensure that the final renovation results stay true to the spirit of the Brady Bunch family home that everyone loves and remembers,” according to a press release. In other words, the iconic staircase and the retro hues used in the home will remain.

Perhaps this is what nostalgia about postwar suburban life looks like: it is filtered through television. Instead of having a show about updating postwar suburban homes (imagine an HGTV show solely devoted to the iconic Levittown and other mass produced suburbs), a network banks on a fictional suburban home. If this Brady Bunch renovation show works, I imagine more shows featuring famous TV homes could occur.

This whole concept makes some sense. Television emerged at the same time as the suburbs. Certain shows, including the Brady Bunch, became associated with suburban America. Some have argued the depictions of suburbs on television helped encourage suburban development – I’m not sure there is much evidence for that. Still, the suburban TV show following the exploits of a nuclear family and kids developed in this time and is still a genre today.

But, I could also imagine some alternative ways that a home like that of the Brady Bunch could enter the realm of nostalgia:

  1. Becoming a museum. Imagine either someone purchasing the property and turning it into a museum or a local government acquiring the property. Put a little money into the home to set up some displays, charge a manageable entrance fee, and the facility is up and running.
  2. Since the first option might cause some zoning issues, move the whole home to a place – museum, theme park, TV studio – better suited to host visitors to the home. What if there was a theme park built around TV buildings or even just around depicted suburban homes?

 

Turning “Property Brothers” into a sitcom

The rise of Jonathan and Drew Scott may be both improbable and humorous enough for a sitcom:

The series is titled “It Takes Two,” based on the Scott brothers’ memoir of the same name. The show follows two entrepreneurial twin brothers who decide to join forces in the real estate business when they realize they are stronger together than apart. Fox has given the project a script commitment with a penalty attached.

The Scotts rose to fame with their hit TV series “Property Brothers,” which is broadcast on HGTV in the U.S. The show proved so successful that it inspired multiple spinoffs, including “Brother vs. Brother” and “Property Brothers: At Home.”

Brothers Jon and Josh Silberman will write and executive produce the series. The duo’s previous TV credits include “Living Biblically” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” They are also writing the screenplay for the upcoming Wile E. Coyote movie.

Given the popularity of the HGTV show with its combination of real estate and renovation plus friendly zaniness, this could easily lead to the land of TV sitcoms.

At the same time, it would be very interesting to see how different the sitcom is from the scripted reality presented on Property Brothers. What details about the Scott’s will be shared on the sitcom? Will the sitcom maintain the general positivity and wholesomeness that marks HGTV shows? Will the sitcom parody what happens on HGTV or will those be the serious moments on the show?

I suspect the sitcom will tread lightly on what actually happens on HGTV or in revealing the “dark sides” of the brothers. This may not be the case if the brothers are hoping to go a new direction or if their HGTV contracts are coming due soon. But, could the Scott’s reinvent themselves with this sitcom or is it another avenue for burnishing their brand and bringing in revenue?

(Final note: if this is successful, how far away is HGTV from running its own sitcoms or dramas? Given the heavy editing and scripting already, perhaps the network is not that far off.)

Seeing residential segregation in House Hunters

In showing buyers of different races and ethnicities as well as different priced homes in different locations, House Hunters helps reveal residential segregation in America:

I really notice this whenever Chicago is featured on “House Hunters.” My city is hyper-segregated and diverse, with a vast number of housing and neighborhood choices for aspiring homebuyers. I quickly noticed a pattern: Chicago-set episodes usually show couples on the hunt in white North Side neighborhoods or gentrifying Latino neighborhoods. They skip over the biggest geographic part of the city—the South Side. And their budgets are $400,000 and up. One agent said that price is typical for a first-time homebuyer. (According to Zillow, the actual median home price in Chicago is about $225,000.) People shell out double that for small condos in expensive neighborhoods, or they look to the Latino communities where whites continue to move in, driving up prices and igniting racial tensions.

Aspiring buyers never explicitly say they want to live in a white neighborhood: They rattle off amenities and architectural styles, and then they choose the whitest segregated neighborhoods in Chicago. Their money would go further if they shopped on the South Side, where I live. But few seem to venture there. I recall an interracial couple—wife black, husband white—who bought in a historic black neighborhood. She pushed the fact that the house was large and under budget. He complained it was too far to bike to work.

Chicago is vast—there’s plenty of housing choice here, but that concept has been muddied by the racially restrictive housing policies that the city fine-tuned in the 20th century; banks, income inequality, legacy wealth, and discrimination have all played a factor. The redlining and racial covenants are gone, but, as “House Hunters” shows us every week, their legacy remains.

The show’s white couples might not agree on much, but they do all seem to want the same thing in a neighborhood. In the new book Cycle of Segregation: Social Processes and Residential Stratification, authors Maria Krysan and Kyle Crowder provide some insight into why. They posit a different spin on why housing segregation remains 50 years after the Fair Housing Act. Housing segregation is self-perpetuating, they say: Segregation persists because it already exists. “[R]esidential moves are structurally sorted along racial lines, which individuals’ perceptions and knowledge of residential options shaped by lived experiences and social interactions within a racially segregated social system,” they write. If you grew up in white segregation, that’s what you know and the social networks, neighborhood experiences, and daily activities reflect that reality.

I might even go a bit further: the show suggests white buyers do not typically have to consider non-white neighborhoods in which to purchase homes. Because of the resources they tend to have, white buyers are mostly purchasing in middle-class or higher neighborhoods that are often mostly white.

Additionally, House Hunters International occasionally features families explaining that the reason they desire to live in a foreign country is to experience some cultural diversity. However, they often end up living in relatively well-off neighborhoods that are often white (even if they are not full of Americans). And the families could have found more diversity in the United States if they were willing to expand their options of where to live.

On the whole, House Hunters does very little with the neighborhood in which dwellings are located or even the block. Outside of very general descriptions, homes are treated as physical objects that could exist anywhere. This makes some sense given the way that Americans emphasize homes as private spaces. Of course, homes cannot be separated by their surroundings and certain aspects of neighborhoods matter a lot for buyers.

The missing microwaves and countertop kitchen appliances on HGTV

In watching a recent episode of something or other on HGTV, I realized something: very few of the renovated homes featured on the channel have visible microwaves or other kitchen appliances on surfaces.

I suspect this is similar to the clean, open concept kitchen that has no mess: the aesthetic is modern and minimalist. Appliances beyond the stove, refrigerator, and dishwasher (which are often emphasized in discussions and visual shots because of their size and finishes) should be out of sight and avoid cluttering the beautiful surfaces. To some degree, this is common when showing houses that are for sale: the thinking is that people do not want to see the clutter of everyday life.

Yet, I would guess that most American kitchens have plenty of countertop appliances that they regularly use. How many home cooks can survive without a toaster or toaster oven, blender, food processor, mixer, coffee makers, crockpot, and so on? And that does not even include the microwave, an indispensable tool for decades.

I suspect that clearing the countertops for the final reveal of homes is akin to the sketchy before and after shots provided by weight loss products. The difference might look substantial but the image is misleading. Is a clear surface that few people can actually live with really desirable versus a kitchen that displays where people can keep some of the stuff they regularly use? The countertops should not be full of junk but a well-placed appliance can both recognize the realities of most American kitchens and hint to the viewer what is possible in the kitchen.

How close to San Francisco does a house have to be to be considered “in San Francisco”?

The short answer: closer than north of Oakland on the east side of San Francisco Bay.

The current edition of Brother vs. Brother on HGTV features two homes undergoing renovation in the Bay Area. However, they are located in the suburbs of El Sobrante and Pinole, respectively a 45 minute and one hour drive from San Francisco. This is similar to a post from years back when I wrote about Procure Proton Therapy claiming a “close to downtown Chicago” location with their Warrenville facility. Can the show truly claim to be about houses in San Francisco?

I would say no for three primary reasons:

  1. The location is just too far away from San Francisco to claim it is in the city. One could visit San Francisco from these locations but the show is not about San Francisco; it is about suburban housing. This is particularly noticeable in each episode with the size of the homes, the price of the homes, and the property each house sits on.
  2. This is not just about being relatively far our from the big city; the homes are also beyond Oakland. The Bay Area is a unique one in that there are three major cities within a relatively short distance from each other: San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. The largest in population is San Jose, the 11th largest city in the country, followed by San Francisco at 13th, and Oakland at 45th. Even though San Jose is closest to Silicon Valley, San Francisco is the most prestigious city with Oakland trailing both. If these suburban homes are to be connected to a big city, Oakland would technically be more accurate.
  3. Many suburbanites rarely make it into the big city if they do not work there or have business that regularly takes them there. They may still identify with the big city in the region, especially when talking with people from other parts of the country or world who have little knowledge of little communities but know certain big cities. Yet, their day-to-day experience is markedly different from that of a San Francisco resident.

I know the marketing is driving this. “Brother vs. Brother: San Francisco” is a lot more exciting than “Brother vs. Brother: Bay Area Suburbs.” Still, the consistent shots of San Francisco is a bit much when these are suburban homes that could fit in many regions across the United States.

 

Open floor plan, hide the kitchen mess

One downside of an open floor plan is that it also exposes all the work that goes into daily life:

That is why one company, Schumacher Homes of Akron, Ohio, has a fresh new design on offer: a house with an open floor plan, with its kitchen, dining area, and living room all flowing into one another. But then, behind the first kitchen, lies another. A “messy” kitchen. There, the preparation for or remainders from a meal or party can be deposited for later cleanup, out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

That this is “necessary” at all is a consequence of the rise of the open floor plan in the first place. On the next block or on HGTV, remodels blow out walls, enlarge kitchens, and couple them to the surrounding space. In new construction, enormous great rooms combine hundreds of square feet of living space into singular, cavernous voids, punctuated only by the granite or marble outcropping of a kitchen island. This amorphous, multipurpose space has become the center of domestic life.

It hasn’t always been this way. These layouts first became popular in pre-war modernist architecture, but their origins stretch back earlier, to the turn of the 20th century at least. Then, as now, they promised to tear down obstruction and facilitate connection. But that promise was aspirational from the start: It assumed an equality in the home that has never come to pass. In practice, open-plan design has always been a stage to a quiet struggle between freedom and servitude. That struggle continues today, and messy kitchens won’t put an end to it. It’s just hard to notice when the experience has been sold, universally, as “great for entertaining.”…

In this respect, the open plan might represent the most distinctly American home design possible: to labor in vain against ever-rising demands, imposed mostly by our own choices, all the while insisting that, actually, we love it. It’s a prison, but at least it’s one without walls.

I wonder if another trend truly explains the move to all this open space with kitchens. Americans are eating less at home as they spend more money spent at restaurants than at home. Yet, homeowners, particularly those on HGTV, regularly suggest that the kitchen is the heart of the home. But, could this heart be more of a showpiece or an aspiration than a regularly messy kitchen? Perhaps the open, gleaming kitchen of today is more like the formal living room (now less common in newer houses) of the past: it is a showpiece, is not necessarily used often, and the typical homeowner should be skilled at using the items in the room (even if they do not use it often). The open floor plan is then a selling point, status symbol, and entertaining space but not always a messy space.

The discussion here of modernism is also interesting. I have argued before that American homeowners are not fans of modernist homes but they may be more inclined toward modernism in their kitchens and open spaces. Again, these are showpieces of the new home and as I see these spaces regularly on HGTV I wonder how families actually live in them.

Trading Spaces avoided McMansions

Washington Post review of the new Trading Spaces emphasizes the smaller spaces the show worked with:

Though it was technically impossible to indict the cable channels — especially HGTV — for their role in the quick-mortgage fantasia, the connections were plain to see: the schedule was (and still is) littered with shows that spur house envy, encouraging viewers to live in a constant state of renovation, makeover and upgrade. Homeownership became the highest expression of citizenship, while decor became the chief signifier of class. “Trading Spaces,” which premiered in 2000, helped ignite that craze, making it safe to waste entire Saturday afternoons watching home-improvement shows. Yet it hardly deserves all (or any) of the blame.

The show returns Saturday (with a long reunion special preceding it), essentially unchanged and contagiously giddy, full of its usual surprises and reveals. Looking at the first of eight new episodes, one is reminded of “Trading Space’s” conceptual purity: It never goaded anyone into ditching their old house for an open-floor-plan, granite-countertop McMansion beyond their means. Its core principles were to work with what you have, on a restrained budget. It preached a DIY ethic, asking couples to swap houses and redo a room, aided (some would say strong-armed) by a crafty professional designer and carpenter.

A few quick thoughts:

  1. The scale of renovation on Trading Spaces is much more doable for the average American homeowner compared to the whole house makeovers on many other shows. How many people have the budget to do multiple rooms, particularly creating all new kitchens or master bathrooms? Or, who has the time to hand over their house for weeks as opposed to doing renovations over a weekend?
  2. The rooms on Trading Spaces tend to be much more varied than the typical home shows that often emphasize an expansive kitchen and open concept first floor. The HGTV shows encourage a homogenous style, moving from stainless steel appliances and granite countertops to shiplap, white cabinets, and open shelving.  American homes tend to be unique inside, particularly in certain rooms where people to have eclectic styles and uses.
  3. While the review above does not blame Trading Spaces for the larger shows to come, once you on television continue (1) glorifying the single-family home as the expression of individual tastes (a long-standing American tradition) plus (2) suggesting that people should be renovating their homes (part of the shift from living in homes to seeing homes as investments), is it a slippery slope to large-scale renovations in big houses?

On the whole, there is a lot that could be said from the move from Bob Villa to Trading Spaces to House Hunters and Property Brothers alongside shifts in American housing. Of course, it is hard to make causal arguments about how watching these shows directly changes behaviors.