Years ago, I wrote a bit of a parody that joked about the similarities between soap operas and porn movies. They’re all done on a budget! There’s disco music in the background! The same actors seem to be in all of them! Okay, it sounded funnier to me at the time. You get the idea.
More recently, I’ve drawn another parallel between soaps and a specific type of reality programming. I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole, readers, and that rabbit hole has HGTV.
HGTV is, of course, the Home and Garden TV channel. There’s not much in the way of Garden these days, but the network’s shows are all about homes. Home selling, home buying and, especially in the post-recession era, home renovation and “flipping.”
I enjoy HGTV, full stop. Yes, I know the “reality” shows there are not 100 percent organically real. But after watching the news – or living it – for a few hours, it’s a great way to unplug my brain for 30 minutes here and there.
After watching consistently for a few months, I noticed that HGTV’s audience is a very curious mix.
It’s a channel where a lot of the shows, and the “reveal” at the end of the shows, are aspirational. This is what you can have in your life. Just remodel and things will be wonderful.
These shows seem to be aimed, as all shows these days must be, at young women 18-49, the key demographic. There’s also a number of shows that feature people of color, and another segment of HGTV shows with LGBT participants.
Women, people of color, LGBT people.
Oh, yeah, where have I heard this before? That’s also the main audience for soap operas.
And of course, those are audiences that don’t always dovetail with each other. Consider HGTV’s programming.
The channel has a pretty substantial gay following, but there are few visible gay hosts. David Bromstad is the only one regularly appearing on the channel now.
In the last few years, HGTV decided that couples were the way to go. And if you’re a Southern couple? Even better.
The king and queen of HGTV are Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper. The Gaineses love rustic country chic and shiplap (look it up); Chip is the clownish dad, while Joanna is the design queen.
They are safe for mass consumption – family values, churchgoing folks with evangelical ties.
And they’ve become a bit of a template for HGTV. Ben and Erin Napier of Home Town? Same idea, but in Laurel, Mississippi.
I’m not here to diminish their faith or beliefs – indeed, I want to write more about faith and serialized drama down the line – but it remains a curious choice to my eyes for HGTV.
Even the couples that don’t have an overt religious connection are still, well, couples. Couples like Midwestern transplants Eric and Lindsay Bennett, who lead sunny Palm Springs based Desert Flippers.
They’re often Southern couples, like the Napiers and Gaineses, like Dave and Kourtney Wilson, of Masters of Flip, and Ken and Anita Corsini of Flip or Flop Atlanta.
And yes, I know the Wilsons are Canadian, but they are in Nashville flipping homes, which seems to be a popular setting for these shows.
Listed Sisters features twin sisters flipping in Nashville, a show which no doubt follows the template of Kitchen Cousins and of course, the Scott Brothers, who are perpetually on HGTV during the day (and now seemingly in a million commercials as well).
And I’m not dragging down family-centered shows, either. The most charming one, in my humble opinion, is Good Bones, which just ended its second season. That show has a mother and daughter team running a real estate company and flipping firm.
Mina and Karen, the mother and daughter duo, are charming, funny and quirky, and the other family members working on projects are, too.
Good Bones works on smaller budgets and smaller houses in “transitional” neighborhoods. Mind you, HGTV is still a corporate entity and an aspirational channel. but Good Bones has shown some realness in the midst of the shiny white subway tiles.
What you’ll notice about most of the people I just mentioned? Well, almost all of them, really? That list is primarily white, straight folks.
HGTV does indeed show episodes with people of color, and LGBT people, but primarily as the single episode participants, the ones looking for a house on House Hunters, or buying one of the flips.
There was a pilot for an HGTV show that debuted a few months ago with a handsome, married gay couple at the helm, called Down To The Studs. It was well done, and got a huge response on social media.
But will HGTV pick this show up? Would Middle America watch a show with a gay couple flipping houses? Or a black couple flipping and restoring homes?
This is a question soaps have had to struggle with for years. A diverse canvas for storytelling makes a story more rich, more textured. It can lead to fresh takes on an old idea – Empire being a great example of that.
But it’s hard to tie stories together when you have such disparate audiences. Many soaps still seem to put their characters of color and their LGBT characters on an island, so to speak.
No doubt, there’s a segment of the audience for both soaps and renovation shows that resist seeing unfamiliar faces unlike their own on their screens.
Corporate influences rule the day these days, and so, too, does the current tone of conversations in the Trump era about those of us who are “other.”
For HGTV, they appear to be genuinely trying to juggle their diverse fan base with their programming, and probably feel like they’ve been inclusive, since they feature LGBT buyers and renters, as well as the occasional short-run show with an LGBT host, like the lottery house show hosted by David Bromstad.
But I’d venture that the biggest chunk of attention for HGTV in the last year has come from Tarek el Moussa and his ex-wife, Christina.
They are the hosts of Flip or Flop – the original version – and their marriage publicly imploded, in a messy, ugly way, with accusations of bad behavior and the couple’s photo plastered all over the tabloids.
And yet….it’s all money in the bank. It was a massive windfall of publicity for HGTV.
So far? The messy, estranged couple with lots of drama is preferable to showing an LGBT couple or a couple or family of color as, shall we say, heads of household. So far. Will it change?