Tuned In

Dead Tree Alert x2: Reality TV and Realty TV

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Dr. Drew counsels D-listers on Celebrity Rehab. / Evans Ward / VHI

Two count them two articles in this week’s print Time magazine. My Tuned In column expands on this earlier riff about TLC’s new show Date My House to look at how cable’s empire of real-estate shows are dealing with—and even profiting from—the collapse of the same housing boom that transformed TV home shows:

Early this decade, TV both profited from and stoked the obsession with real estate. TLC’s Trading Spaces became a phenomenon. Real estate magnate and ’80s relic Donald Trump reinvented himself as a prime-time star on The Apprentice. HGTV went from being an obscure channel to being one of the most popular destinations on the dial.

With the change in the psychology of home-owning–from the house as shelter to the house as investment, retirement vehicle and personal ATM–came a shift in home shows’ focus. Out of fashion went renovation programs like This Old House, about restoring details and loving a home for its character. In came playing the real estate market. Sell This House!, My House Is Worth What? and many more flattered the smug certainty of homeowners and speculators that their home equity would shoot endlessly up like shares of Google. HGTV, TLC and their ilk may not have created the real estate bubble, but they certainly supplied some of the hot air.

The housing bust may mean lower prices, but not necessarily lower ratings. After the column went to presss, I received a press release from A&E, boasting that Sell This House! is up 42% in the first quarter of 2008: “Show ratings inflate as marketplace deflates.”

Meanwhile, in the Arts section I have a review-essay on the trendlet to gussy up reality shows—from competitions to makeovers—with self-help and pop-therapy themes, as on Celebrity Rehab and many others:

Oprah does not have the only Oprahesque reality show on TV today; more and more of them are overtly or covertly about mental makeovers. The Biggest Loser coaches weight loss. MTV’s Made gives outcast kids self-confidence; the CW’s Beauty and the Geek does the same for socially challenged nerds and academically challenged hotties. Supernanny gives tough love to out-of-control kids (and parents); A&E’s Intervention, to addicts. On TLC’s The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom, women who gave up careers to stay home go back to work for a week, then reconcile themselves with their life choices. Even TV Land has a new feel-good reality show, The Big 4-0, which helps people come to terms with turning 40 (and with the fact that they are now in TV Land’s demographic, not MTV’s).

It may seem contradictory, but it makes perfect sense. As cutthroat as the reality genre is, it has always had a touchy-feely side, dealing with relationship troubles, self-esteem issues and personal demons, all steeped in the pop-therapy language of personal growth through challenge. From Survivor to American Idol, reality’s premise has been that what does not get you eliminated makes you stronger. The Amazing Race (which shares two producers with Big Give) is part contest, part couples’ therapy.

Read the article. It will help you learn to love yourself.

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