Tuesday, October 7, 2014

How real are real estate reality shows?

We all love TV’s reality shows that revolve around real estate. But whether it’s following around some first time buyers or giving a backyard a makeover, by now we’re not naïve to think our favorite programs are factual documentaries. Reality TV isn’t reality but a rendering of reality, but how much does that apply to our programs about bliss, strife, and homeowner life behind the white picket fence?

The last eight years or so saw an explosion of reality shows based on buying real estate, flipping real estate, selling real estate, remodeling and redecorate homes, redoing backyards, and knocking down and building new homes for the less fortunate. House Hunters, Property Virgin, Trading Spaces, House Crashers, Design on a Dime, Designed to Sell, Divine Design, Dream Home, Holmes on Homes (my favorite,) Flipping Out, Property Brothers, Love It or List It, Million Dollar Listing, The Vanilla Ice Project, Extreme Makeover, Renovation Realities, Clean House, House Flippers appear on channels like HGTV (Home and Garden Television,) BRAVO, and many others. Based on the popularity of the shows, they’ve even expanded overseas, with plenty of international real estate reality offerings like House Hunters International.

They’re everywhere, they’re entertaining, and they bring in huge ratings for the networks, but are they real?

Sort of. Maybe. Or not really, depending on whom you ask. But in the age of over-disclosure via social media, numerous insiders and show participants have divulged the warts on our favorite reality home shows.

Bobi Jensen, a former contestant on House Hunters, recently came clean that the show is a “sham.” The show’s producers enlisted Jensen and her family, who were planning on turning their home into a rental property and buying another, for an episode. But they thought her plans were “boring and overdone,” so they simply rewrote the script and had Jensen and co. act it out in front of the cameras, ostensibly erasing “reality” from “reality show.” The producers talked her into a storyline where her family wanted to sell because they were desperately in need of more square footage. If that’s not enough of a fabrication, the producers only agreed to feature Jensen and her family for their show once she had already bought her new house. That’s right – she already found, made and offer, was accepted, in escrow, and closed on her new home before the TV crews came in. But in the show, Jensen and her family were starting from scratch, looking at three houses for sale before settling on the one they loved, putting down an offer, and waiting with bitten nails until they found out their offer was accepted. That’s right – in reality (real life reality/not reality show reality) Jensen already owned the home, and the rest was just acting.

It turns out that’s standard practice for reality shows, which only enlist buyers who already own the home they are finding and buying on TV. What’s more, some of the homes they view on the show aren’t even for sale. So even though buyers walk through with their realtors and consider the pros and cons of three homes, they already own one home and the other two may be off the market, already sold, or not even for sale but owned by friends and completely staged.

While the cameras are on, the home buyers or sellers (as the case may be) are asked to feign emotions and craft conversations as if they’re seeing everything for the first time and really deliberating on their housing alternatives. Instead, their emotions, dramas, and surprise are all feigned. In fact, they’re asked to redo these conversations sometimes dozens of takes. Often, shows collect 40 hours of real life footage and edit it down to a 25-minute program.

Those practices by HGTV are more indicative of a soap opera than a reality show, but they’ve become standard practice in the home TV show genre. That’s confirmed not only by Jensen but Chicago Realtor Eric Rojas, show buyers Kurt and Kelly Schnakenberg, and many others.  

Not so fast, responds HGTV’s general manager as she defends her network’s shows. She calls HGTV, “a network of journalistic storytelling, not dramatic storytelling,” and says that producers are “very conscious of not allowing any kind of fake drama.”

However, HGTV later publically flip flopped, admitting to Entertainment Weekly that producers “recruit families who have already done most of the house-hunting legwork to accommodate production time constraints, but because the stakes in real estate are so high, these homeowners always find themselves RIGHT back in the moment, experiencing the same emotions and reactions to these properties."

Sounds like double-speak at best, but to pile on, former show participants came forward with even more revelations. On a recent episode of House Hunters International, a couple was looking to buy a home in Mexico. The show’s producers wanted to attract a younger, hipper audience than the usually over-50 year old retirees that buy foreign properties, so they switched out the actual buyers with a younger couple – both actors who had absolutely nothing to do with the real transaction.

In typical hot-air fashion, the publicist for House Hunters issued a statement to Entertainment Weekly:

“We’ve learned that the pursuit of the perfect home involves big decisions that usually take place over a prolonged period of time  — more time than we can capture in 30 minutes of television. However, with a series like House Hunters, HGTV viewers enjoy the vicarious and entertaining experience of choosing a home — from establishing a budget, to touring properties and weighing the pros and cons of each one. We’re making a television show, so we manage certain production and time constraints, while honoring the home buying process. To maximize production time, we seek out families who are pretty far along in the process. Often everything moves much more quickly than we can anticipate, so we go back and revisit some of the homes that the family has already seen and we capture their authentic reactions. Because the stakes in real estate are so high, these homeowners always find themselves RIGHT back in the moment, experiencing the same emotions and reactions to these properties. Showcasing three homes makes it easier for our audience to “play along” and guess which one the family will select. It’s part of the joy of the House Hunters viewing experience. Through the lens of television, we can offer a uniquely satisfying and fun viewing experience that fulfills a universal need to occasionally step into someone else’s shoes.”

Hmmm…so let me get this straight; the people on the show may be actors, the homes for sale may not really be for sale, they already own the homes they’re buying on the show, the realtors know the offers already were accepted, the storylines are fabricated, and the conversations and scenes are all directed and staged. It begs the question; what about these home reality shows is still real? The commercials?  

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