Real estate shows play to many aspects of what an audience wants: fantasy, escapism, relatability, drama and personalities that can get welcomed into a viewer’s home on a regular basis. Such shows as Netflix’s “Selling Sunset,” “Million Dollar Beach House” and the ur-series of this nonfiction subgenre, “Million Dollar Listing L.A.” and “Million Dollar Listing New York,” slake a thirst for all those needs, and more.
“It is escapist, because of the quality of the homes that you’re seeing, all the high-end real estate,” ” says Shari Levine, exec VP, unscripted current production, entertainment content, NBCUniversal Television and Streaming. “These are places that most people can’t afford and aren’t going to be buying. But it’s an opportunity to walk through and sort of see what that looks like. And it’s fantasy material. And you get to say, ‘What if I lived there, and I would do this in this room, and this and that room.’”
Because the shows all skillfully mix in big personalities — “Selling Sunset’s” Chrishell Stause competed on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” while Christine Quinn is arguably the biggest breakout from the show — who are actually top agents and brokers, they do go beyond cat fights over rosé at trendy restaurants: a lot of the drama comes with the negotiations.
“The truth is, all real estate is relatable on some level,” notes Levine. “Many of us aspire to owning our own home in one form or another. And the notion of what you have to go through to get there and the tension of selling, the tension of buying, all of that is wrapped up in what you see. So even though you’re not going to be able to typically afford what you’re seeing these people selling, you can watch it and think ‘Oh, this is what I would do, or this is what I want to know’ or there’s some take-away from it, that will help inform you down the road.”
For the professionals on the shows, keeping the drama somewhat contained while focusing on the business of real estate is key to ratings and personal success.
“I think that ‘Million Dollar Listing’ walks a very fine line, because it appeals to a wide cross-section of viewership and the personalities of the brokers, their interrelationships that we show are often very appealing to typical Bravo viewers who like drama, and they like to watch people engaging with each other. And then there’s the procedural aspect of watching the real estate negotiation itself,” says Levine.
(For another real estate angle, Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” features Mauricio Umansky, husband of cast member Kyle Richards, and founder and CEO of The Agency, one of the top luxury home sales shingles in the country.)
“Million Dollar Listing New York” star Ryan Serhant — who was first cast on the show in 2010 — spent 2020 launching his own shop, which includes real estate, a film production studio and various other concerns such as real estate courses, books and marketing, among his other myriad professional interests, including branching out into scripted series.
We’re selling stories, he says of real estate. And over the last calendar year, “we diversified wherever we sell. We’ve done a significant amount of business in Florida over the past couple months, and outside of Manhattan, because we go where our clients go, right?”
Because he’s upped the ante by launching Serhant Media Group, he and his team have honed storytelling skills.
“People like industry-specific content,” he says. “Million Dollar Listing” and “Selling Sunset” show what it means to be a top real estate broker in a luxury market working with wealthy clients. “That is a career that these shows follow that is super unique. I mean, ‘Deadliest Catch’ or ‘Ice Road Truckers,’ ‘Dog, the Bounty Hunter’ — these shows do really, really well because they’re industry-specific,” he says, opening up a world that most people will never encounter. “I’m never going to be a bounty hunter. I don’t know what that life is like, so let’s go watch that show.”
Sehant, like others in the reality show real estate sphere, also talk about how they also see themselves as illustrating effective sales techniques. Viewer feedback underscores this point.
“People were reaching out every day saying, ‘Hey, I sell cars in Indiana. I don’t sell real estate. But I really learned something from that episode last night. You helped me close a deal,’ “ he says.
He’s launched courses and books, while luxury real estate mavens like Barbara Corcoran has expanded her brand on “Shark Tank” and through social media.
Jason Oppenheim, who owns the real estate brokerage with twin brother Brett that fans of “Selling Sunset” can’t get enough of, saw the opportunity inherent in doing a series but was also worried about image since he and his brother had built a great reputation over the years, not to mention that reputation was worth millions of dollars of business.
His mindset during development of the series was anxious, and he admits that at first, he and his brother were not easy to deal with.
He thought, “I’ve got so much to lose” including not only millions in commissions and a reputation, but in the end he took a leap of faith, although that was difficult. “I guess I’m not good at relinquishing control and in this case, obviously I didn’t have control, I couldn’t micromanage the production.”
After a successful Season 1, he relaxed, and “at this point it’s just pure fun, certainly for me.” Production of Season 4 is on deck.
He’s gotten tremendous viewer feedback, and even heard from clients who watch the show with their partners and spouses.
Oppenheim notes that the show checks a lot of boxes for people: it’s got fashion, big personalities, architecture, luxury houses and the L.A. lifestyle.
The luxury market grew in the last year, and Oppenheim Group expanded to Orange County, opening up a large branch in Newport Beach, Calif., to capitalize on the exploding market very south of Sunset.
Peggy Zabakolas, the lone woman in the Nest Seekers office featured in “Million Dollar Beach House,” notes that she joined the show “because it’s a great platform” for her brand to reach beyond New York City. “I’m able to reach out to not only the United States, but the entire country, or world. I wanted to elevate my platform, elevate my brand. … Now, since doing the show, I have a ‘band’ or ‘family,’ like, all over the world, even Cuba, everywhere.”
She also notes that the shows deliver “escapism, especially during COVID.”
Oppenheim boils it down: “I think these shows are popular because it’s fun. I think that’s kind of needed right now.”