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Canadian Tv Networks Tune In To Housing's New Reality

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From the The Globe and Mail

There's nothing like a mortgage crisis to take the fun out of property speculation.

Remember the heady days of 2006? Flip This House, Flip That House. It all made real estate gambles seem so easy. Attempt to make a buck off a property you can't afford to keep? You'd be crazy not to.

As any guilt-mongering mother will tell you, now they're laughing – soon they'll be crying. In a climate where consumers have felt the pinch of overoptimistic housing speculation, reality-TV executives have been forced to wise up to the sensitivities of the market. Flipping is out and nesting is in.

“With the economy the way it is right now, we've definitely seen a switch away from a lot of the flipping shows,†Emily Morgan said. This month, CanWest tapped Ms. Morgan to oversee program development at HGTV Canada. The channel is working together with its U.S. division to produce more design and renovation shows, with an emphasis on loving the home you already own.

In other words, reality shows are attempting to keep pace with reality.

“There isn't that property craze going on,†Ms. Morgan said. “People want to live within their means a little more. It isn't, ‘How can we turn things over?' It's more ‘How can we make things better?'“ Ms. Morgan, who also manages content at CanWest's Food Network and Fine Living channels, will continue the work that began at HGTV Canada even before the scope of the downturn became clear.

When Burton Jablin, the head of the network that owns HGTV in the U.S., was labelled by Time Magazine as one of the “25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis,†the only exception to the magazine's lambasting of his programming's unrealistic images of home values was a Canadian-produced show.

Income Property , which launched last fall, features people renovating their homes to accommodate tenants. The rent then goes toward mortgage payments.

“HGTV is trying to show a more reasonable face,†said Grazyna Krupa, the executive producer of Income Property . When she and the other developers at Toronto-based company RTR Media pitched the show in 2007, the U.S. channel bought it after seeing just the pilot episode. They didn't know they'd soon be tapping into the zeitgeist. HGTV was still focused on glamorous shows about housing development. When the market took a nosedive, the new state of home economics meant reality-TV needed a makeover, fast.

“It was a timely moment,†Ms. Krupa said. “The economy took that downswing and Income Property became even more relevant and valuable.â€

Suddenly, a channel devoted to home speculation was looking to its northern counterpart for a dose of balance. And it's picking up speed. This October, the channel will premier Family Renovation It's like a standard reno show, except just like in real life, the family has to live in the house along with the dust, noise and exposed roof beams.

Oh, and they have five kids under the age of 10.

“It's done in a Jon and Kate Plus 8 sort of way,†Ms. Morgan said, “but very much about the home style of television HG does so well.†(And without the messy divorce – fingers crossed.) Ms. Morgan plans to premiere more shows like this, with renovation as the focus. “There's a lot of focus on nesting and people loving their homes,†she said.

The change is most extreme at HGTV, but the trend is hitting reality-TV elsewhere too.

At Corus-owned lifestyle channel W, two new money shows are in the works, to launch as early as next spring, said Vibika Bianchi, director of original productions for the network's women's channels.

“With the doom and gloom of the last year, we're trying to look at it in a more positive way,†Ms. Bianchi said. “We want to show how to make your money go further for you, ways that money can be your friend as opposed to your foe.â€

Corus's existing money shows, like Maxed Out , which demonstrates how to get your finances in order, began featuring people in less desperate situations.

But because program development is such a long-term process, Ms. Bianchi said, Corus's strategy is to stay away from more time-focused trends like addressing the downturn.

“We're hoping economic recovery is coming, and we want to be the bright place viewers come to,†she said.

Back at CanWest, there is new appreciation for shows that work in a downturn, but also have staying power.

Til Debt Do Us Part has just launched its eighth season on Slice, helping couples tackle their financial woes. It enjoyed a ratings bump when the economy went sour.

“It just showed again that it's useful to viewers,†said Vanessa Case, the programming director at Slice. “We're always thinking of new ways to deliver financial information in a lighthearted way … that lets people watch it without feeling they're being preached to.â€

The question, of course, is whether viewers really want a dose of reality when they pick up the clicker. As the recovery ramps up, HGTV is betting modest money-saving offerings will have staying power, Ms. Morgan said. But if it turns out that the ratings swing toward escapism, the channel could be facing its own renovation.

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