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Dead Tree Alert: TV Home Economics

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My Culture Complex column in this week’s Time (the one with Mike Bloomberg and Arnold getting all cuddly on the cover) is about two personal obsessions of mine: real estate, and TV shows that obsess about real estate. More specifically, the fact cable home shows have gone from focusing on decoration and DIY and become about money, money, money–even after (or especially because) the national housing boom has gone bust:

[I]t’s brilliant TV, allowing us to indulge a little jealousy (say, of the lucky bastard who bought a Manhattan apartment for $90,000 in 1990) and vicarious money lust. And it demonstrates how the housing boom changed the way people look at their homes: as an expression of their financial savvy rather than their creative selves.

And who can blame us for it? Social Security is endangered. Job security is a quaint memory. Upward social mobility is failing. (A new study by the Economic Mobility Project finds that American men in their 30s are worse off financially than their fathers.) Real estate may not offer double-digit returns anymore, but it does offer an atavistic promise of security, a nest egg embodied in Sheetrock that you can touch and dirt that can’t be outsourced to Mumbai. Property fever is in our blood: this country made its fortune in sweet real estate deals–a Louisiana Purchase here, a few trinkets for Manhattan there–and these HGTV shows tap into something primal.

Given the space I focused mostly on HGTV, the brand leader, but there are any other of real-estate shows that, seriously, if I didn’t critique TV for a living, might constitute 90% of my leisure viewing. A favorite that I failed to mention is Fine Living’s What You Get for the Money, each episode of which tells you what a set figure ($300,000, $500,000, a cool mil) buys you in different areas of the country. It’s a simple, elegantly materialistic concept, and it never fails to tell me what a rank sucker I am for owning a house in Brooklyn. North Dakotans, feel free to brag.

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