Atlantan Egypt Sherrod (left) advises first-time home buyers on HGTV's Property Virgins. Upticks in the housing market make TV producers think viewers are ready for common-sense home buying or improvement shows, as opposed to themes focused on opulence.
Atlanta TV producer Suzan Satterfield's latest show says a lot about how Americans view the current real estate market.
"Mega Dens," Satterfield's series on the DIY Network, features families getting help creating a shared space in their home where Mom can read the latest mystery and Dad can play his collection of disco albums while Junior surfs on his computer.
"Most of the people we find [for the show] are making a commitment to staying in their homes at least a few more years," Satterfield said.
Meanwhile, shows about moving up, designing extravagant cribs and flipping houses for profit are less often produced these days, as viewers settle into the reality of underwater loans, low home prices, tougher loan standards and fewer moves for job changes.
"After 2004, we conjectured, as the economy was starting to dip, that people were less interested in seeing these major makeovers," Satterfield said. "Nobody wants to watch 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous' when you are just trying to make your mortgage."
Reality TV shows both reflect and shape what Americans aspire to, fear or laugh at, said Jason Mittell, associate professor of film and media culture at Middleberry College in Vermont. As such, they can serve as a barometer of where society is, and where it is headed.
"The channels and the programmers that are making decisions ... are imagining the audience doesn't want to see something that is so far away that they can't reach it," said Mittell, a former Georgia State University teacher.
A redo of a backyard or game room is at least plausible, if not always realistic, he said. A big-bucks home makeover during economically constrained times is neither.
The shows also can reflect what people want in the near term. TV executives look to craft shows viewers will watch before laying out production money, he said. And producers watch trends to help pitch shows that will resonate with people when the shows air in future months.
So, what do shows in production now say about viewers' concerns and beliefs about the housing market?
Kathleen Finch, general manager of home-show haven HGTV, said programs in production indicate tamer tastes and practicality, but also some re-emerging confidence.
"Just [last month] I looked at the first episode of a new series called 'Buying and Selling,'" Finch said. "It is a one-hour show that talks about what everybody seems to be talking about, which is the market is coming back."
There also is a new series called "Stage to Sell," she said, "about a company in L.A. helping homeowners to sell homes by staging to the utmost, but for not a huge amount of money."
HGTV has swapped some of its more extravagant home shows for common sense concepts, such as how to expand the home you are in or buy your first home.
"Property Virgins" focuses on young couples who are first-time buyers.
"We have a Realtor in Atlanta who helps them make the leap into the real estate market. She gives good practical advice," Finch said.
Home sales and construction numbers show Finch's productions are in line with what is beginning to happen. Home sale prices are trending up nationally and rose 4 percent in Atlanta in May, according to the Standard & Poor's Case-Shiller Home Price Index.
Sales are healthier than they were last year. They trended up through June, when they began to dip again. Among homes sold, there were 30 percent fewer foreclosures across the U.S. than in June 2011, the National Association of Realtors said.
There were 2,051 new home starts in metro Atlanta in the second quarter of 2012, up from 1,489 in the same quarter last year, according to Metrostudy, a national housing numbers cruncher.
Brian Flynn, a designer and design producer for HGTV's "Design Star," said shows are trending somewhere between the high-end designs of good times and the more chintzy designs favored during the recent crash.
"They also want to know how to spend their money wisely without necessarily embarking on full remodels: how much to spend on a sofa, how to use a lackluster deck to the best of its potential, how to choose pieces from retail stores that have a high-end, designer look.
"I think viewers are becoming more interested in take-aways and useful information rather than gimmicks or drama," he said. "After four years of this awful housing market, we've had enough drama. It's time for buying and decorating houses to be fun again."
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