Housing woes affect reality shows

Cable's real estate series redraw blueprints

As the housing market shifts, so does cable’s cottage industry of real estate shows.

Most of those property programs — the foundation of several lifestyle nets — are adjusting their blueprints as market mavericks start losing their shirts rather than making a pretty penny.

With the mortgage meltdown, foreclosures on the rise and property values in freefall, TLC’s “Property Ladder” and about a half-dozen other shows have started to address the downturn.

During the last major bubble burst — the 2000 stock market bust — CNBC, which rode the tech boom, watched its ratings slide. Nets like TLC, HGTV and Bravo, which similarly enjoyed the housing explosion, are now running into the real-life dramas among homeowners and real estate flippers as the market moves from boom to bust.

“It is going to make things more interesting,” says Kirsten Kemp, host of TLC’s “Property Ladder.” “This is what will separate the boys from the men. You have to educate yourself. … It’s not just paint and tile and fabric. It’s a business and needs to be respected as such.”

Series like “Property Ladder,” which focuses on novice home flippers, are referencing the rapidly declining market — and those episodes were taped months ago. On another show, Bravo’s “Flipping Out,” outspoken real estate flipper Jeff Lewis suddenly found himself over-leveraged and needed to sell a home fast.

“It wasn’t something we expected to focus on,” says Frances Berwick, Bravo’s programming and production exec VP. “But that’s what he deals with on a day-to-day basis.”

Berwick isn’t concerned about the housing market impacting her ratings. For starters, shows like “Flipping Out” depend more on characters than whether or not homes get sold on camera. And shows like “Flipping Out,” which center on high-end homes, may be more immune to the market downturn anyway.

What’s more, Ber-wick believes viewers will always be interested in the housing market. While not everyone dabbles in the stock market, she notes, everyone wants to own a home.

“That won’t go away,” she says. “You’ve got to have some place to live.”

As for property series in production, most will hit the small-screen by January — and at that point, expect to watch a few more dour faces cursing their bad luck.

“We’re starting to see it now in the stuff we’re filming,” says Brant Pinvidic, TLC’s senior VP of programming. “It’s gone from, ‘Oh, I can get so much money for my house’ to, ‘Oh my goodness, what if I don’t sell my house?’ ”

After all, as the market crumbles, skeins that once highlighted get-rich-quick property flips suddenly won’t always have happy endings.

But rather than lament the end of the decade’s go-go home boom, Pinvidic says the recent gloom-and-doom headlines may ultimately make for better TV.

“From a TV perspective, it makes things much easier for me,” he says. “It increases the stakes. And I want people with real stakes.”

To highlight those risks, Pinvidic says every TLC property show is now required to detail how much a home ultimately sold for — if it sold at all — and whether the owner made any money or lost a bundle.

“It’s what people really want to see,” he says. “The ‘reveals’ will be bigger and better. There’s no longer the forgone conclusion that every time you paint a house with a roller you’ll make a profit.

“What’s real about it is people take these risks on their own. They get all the rewards if it pays off, but reap the failures if it doesn’t. The audience will get it and it will make for great TV, no way around it.”

Until now, TV’s property shows were mostly upbeat chronicles of the seemingly unstoppable housing market. The glut of entrants included “Property Ladder,” Discovery Home’s “Flip That House,” A&E’s “Flip This House,” HGTV’s “Bought and Sold,” and more recently, Bravo’s “Flipping Out” and TLC’s “Real Estate Pros.”

Critics suggested the shows overglamorized home flipping, particularly giving the impression that a huge profit was guaranteed. And indeed, most of the flips chronicled — even ones that went horribly wrong, with expensive delays and costly errors — ultimately resulted in a big sale and a rich profit for the homeowner.

“The market at that point could compensate for your mistakes,” says “Property Ladder” host Kirsten Kemp, whose show has illustrated the pitfalls of first-time home flips more than the others.

“Property Ladder,” she says, attempted to inject some reality into the flipping craze by showing “people without experience falling on their face,” she said. But this season, it also showcased homeowners who had already flipped a house once or twice.

Pinvidic says TLC is mulling several new shows in the real estate genre that take a tougher look at what’s going on. A show that follows families fighting foreclosure, for example, is not out of the realm of possibility.

“Some of our property programs will be revamped and redone, and some will be replaced,” he says. “We’ll mimic and tailor our shows to what the real people in this country are feeling.”

The shows still aren’t hurting for participants, despite the credit crackdown — yet. And if fewer novices can secure loans in the volatile Southern California market — where many of these productions are based — shows like “Property Ladder” will hit the road more often.

“More than half of our flips this season were out of California,” Kemp says. “If you want to flip in this market, you can. But you need to really be on top of things.”

Adds Pinvidic: “Surprisingly enough, there are always people who want to give it a shot. Everyone has an inflated idea of what their skills are and what they can accomplish.”

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