Life in the Box: HGTV

Which house will American home-buyers pick? “Over-budget Sandy Beach,” “Too Small Good Location,” or “Good Bones Fixer-Upper?” That’s the question underlying every single episode of the HGTV cable channel’s programming. I should know, I’ve watched HGTV (Home and Garden Television) nearly non-stop for about a month.

What fascinates me isn’t necessarily predicting which home they’ll choose, although the cheesy format does serve as a good organizational thread. I just love looking inside houses and travelling across American and the world.

When I was a kid, my parents used to take us in the car, and drive slowly by different neighborhoods, dreaming of what it would be like to live in different homes. At other times, we’d take our dog for a walk at twilight, and try not to look too nosy while craning our necks to see into lit homes with open drapes. How do other people live?

The consumer side of me enjoys gloating about how much room we have in our $160,000 mid-western house, versus the $500,000 houses and condos in big cities. And while it’s fun to see how the million-dollar houses compare, I prefer the mind-set of squeezing the most out of $300,000 or less.

Then, there’s the wall pulverizing scenes. Why are so many walls coming down inside houses these days? I’ll tell you in three words: “open floor plan.” In the more than 200 episodes of HGTV programs I’ve seen, there has not been one that hasn’t made it clear that the “open floor plan” is best.

Other top 2014 and 2015 HGTV consumer trends include: wood floors are best, carpet is out, and no matter what the kitchen looks like, it must go.

Watching these shows doesn’t take a lot of brain power. They flow endlessly into each other with the same script: introduce home buyers, show them three homes, make them decide which one to buy, watch them fix it (if needed), and show them happy at the end.

For those shows with fixer-uppers, months of time are compressed, making everything look easy. The story lines can include the ups and downs that can happen during renovation (in inside terms “reno”); I’ve seen bee hives in the walls, foundation problems, unexpected floor and water damage, bad wiring, and costs that skyrocket; but, never fear, there’s always a smile before it’s all over. And the house will never be the same.

When I look back at all I’ve seen, I realize that only the tiniest percentage of home buyers have mentioned historical preservation or sustainable building practices. A few have liked locally recycled materials like bricks and wood for decoration. A few are looking for “tiny homes” to keep costs down. One or two, in third-world countries, have been concerned about clean water and security. There is one short series about living “Off the Grid.” But, other than this, no one has been looking for something on a near-poverty income. Some buyers even have a few mil to spare for their own island paradise. So, this channel is not the learning channel, and you won’t find step-by-step instructions for doing anything yourself. You’ll just cheer from the sidelines. 

The superficiality can get a little old, even for the side of me that just likes to look at stuff. This channel plays up the drama of seeing families disagree, weigh preferences, make compromises, and combine styles. How the families come to the decisions is left out; but that they do decide is the punch line.    

Soothing television? Yes. Brain science? No. Motivational? Maybe. All I can say is, I have been pestering my wife about taking a sledge-hammer to one of our poorly designed closets in order to create a beautiful built-in. She looks at me with a tsk-tsk, and takes away my television remote. 


Nancy Heather Brown is an Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she uses gems from this treasure trove of life stories to add sparkle to her reflections on the creative process both inside and outside the box. 


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