Down to Business: Shows about pricey homes provide escape

It sounded like a line from one of those classic romantic comedies produced in Hollywood after the G

It sounded like a line from one of those classic romantic comedies produced in Hollywood after the Great Depression, perhaps uttered by Katharine Hepburn to Cary Grant: “Life can only be lived with champagne, darling.” But in fact, it was spoken with appropriate snobbishness by one of the featured interior designers on the reality TV show “Million Dollar Decorators,” which ended an eight-episode run on the Bravo cable channel last week.

The so-called docu-series detailed the ups and downs of a handful of Los Angeles designers as they serviced their demanding high-end clients — part of a bumper crop of reality shows focused lately on expensive homes and lifestyles.

But how in tune with the times can these shows be when we’re still recovering from the 2007-09 recession? Hiring remains lackluster, credit continues to be tight and residential foreclosures persist.

“This makes perfect sense,” says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University and a professor in the college’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications who has written extensively about television. “We’re in hard times ” [and] fantasy goes down better in hard times.”

The Depression may have spawned iconic high-society movies that were meant as an antidote to the period, but entertainment isn’t always a barometer for the economy, he said: “The Waltons,” which depicted life in rural Virginia during the Depression, ran on network TV for more than a decade in good times and bad, as did “Dallas,” which depicted life in oil-rich Texas.

Likely at the root of the current crop of reality TV shows — aside from the need to fill hours and hours of airtime with original programming — is simply a curiosity about celebrities and their wealth, Thompson said. And high-end real estate “is fascinating,” he added, whether we’re able to afford it or not.

June Deery, an associate professor of language, literature and communication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, who teaches courses in media and popular culture and whose academic research includes reality TV, says the shows are tied to the very old idea of “wealth voyeurism,” which gives them the ratings they need to succeed.

They’re “not a real cue for the stock market,” she said, even if show promoters cast them as symbolic of economic recovery.

Indeed, some of the shows pre-date the recession. “Million Dollar Listing,” for instance, first aired in 2006, took a year off, then returned to a much different housing market in 2008. But the show, carried on Bravo, retained a focus on Hollywood-area homes in the million-dollar-plus category, even though the storyline now concentrates on the lives of the young go-getter agents listing them. A New York City version of the show is expected to debut in the fall.

A similar bi-coastal strategy for a successful high-end-home series is seen in “Selling New York” and “Selling LA” on the HGTV channel. The former follows the listing agents of expensive Manhattan high-rises; the latter, which aired a preview episode last week, does the same on the West Coast.

Deery said that while these shows are “shameless” in exploiting the “million dollar” label — and the competing emotions of admiration and contempt that viewers may have for wealth — the Great Recession did make a cameo: agents were seen struggling to get listings or to make sales or to appease unrealistic homeowners.

In the end, she said, the shows are no more than a new take on the old concept of conspicuous consumption.

Marlene Kennedy , a longtime business editor in the Capital Region, can be reached by email at [email protected].

Categories: Business

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