LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Twenty-five years ago today, cable TV got a new channel that's changed how we relate to the places we call home - HGTV.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Our wish list is we want space. And we need a backyard. I need a backyard.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: At least four bedrooms and at least three bathrooms.
CHIP GAINES: Katie and Cody, you guys ready to check out your fixer upper?
GAINES: All right. Let's do it.
DAVID VISENTIN: OK. So decision made?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah.
HILARY FARR: And are you going to love it?
VISENTIN: Or are you going to list it?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We are going to list it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, the moment where they decide to do the thing you don't want them to do. Home and Garden Television has inspired us to change up our decor, to think big about renovations, to do it ourselves, to have it all open plan. Yes, we can install our own hardwood floors. We can replace that window. We will tear down that wall. We have a sledgehammer. We can use it. We can flip this house and sell it. Or we can just kick back on the couch and watch someone else do these things and critique them while they do it. And that's why we have Ronda here with us. Hi, Ronda.
RONDA KAYSEN: Hi. How are you?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm good. Ronda Kaysen writes about real estate for The New York Times. And, like me, she loves to watch HGTV. Welcome.
KAYSEN: Hi. Thanks so much for having me. This is one of my perennial favorites. I'm curled up all weekend watching HGTV. And I think it's practically an American pastime at this point.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter). I think you're absolutely right. I mean, HGTV has built a super strong fan base over the last 25 years. Remind us how it started out. And what made it take off?
KAYSEN: Well - so it was founded in 1994 by two TV and radio executives. And it was originally - they called it Home, Lawn and Garden Channel. And it was this very tame network. Like, think of it as "This Old House" meets Martha Stewart. The very first show was "Room By Room." And the host would, like, show you how to do these kitschy DIY projects, like stuff your own throw pillows.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Something we all need to know.
KAYSEN: I know, right? There was another show called "Decorating Cents," where you would get tips on how to decorate your room for, like, $500. And so everything changed in 1999 because they launched "House Hunters." And this put HGTV on the map. And they went from being sort of quasi-educational to house porn.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: House porn.
KAYSEN: Can I say house porn?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. We can say house porn. But there's something else that 1999 signifies. It's the start of the housing boom, right? And "House Hunters" kind of tapped into what was going on in the U.S. at the time.
KAYSEN: Yeah. The timing couldn't have been better. So the country's starting this housing boom. And, you know, millions of Americans start buying homes on cheap credit. And sort of for the first time, we start thinking about homes not as a place where you live out your life but where there's this an investment. And it's a source of endless cash. Your house sort of becomes a piggy bank. So "House Hunters" was this show that sort of told us how to shop and how to look for houses as, like, an investment and aspiration and as something that you could turn into potential profit, that it was a game. Like, which one will they choose? And which one should we choose? So they kind of tapped into what was happening with the culture. And we were thinking really differently. We weren't just stuffing throw pillows anymore.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you call it house porn?
KAYSEN: I think there's something about it - that we like watching other people make these choices. And you can hate them. And you can love them. And you can get invested in them. And you're not really, like, an active participant. And you get to watch a kitchen look fantastic. And everything is very simple and easy. And we all know that, like, renovating a kitchen is the furthest thing from simple and easy. Yet when it's all done, the homeowner cries. And they all come in. And everything's so beautiful. And the pillows are just right. And there's a big, oversized clock above the mantel. And everything's been hung just right. And so it's very - like, it turns what is actually a grueling, difficult task into this very easy, glossy, soft-focus experience.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, it is true that every single person that I know that has renovated their house has, like, either ended up in bankruptcy, hating their contractor and crying multiple times.
KAYSEN: Divorce court.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Divorce court. Exactly. And this is reality TV, though, right? And so much of it is staged. So much of it is scripted. What are some of the things that they do there, though? Take us behind the scenes. What is a show like "Property Brothers" or "Love It Or List It" really like?
KAYSEN: OK. Well, first, I want to talk about budget before we go there because these budgets are absurd. A lot of these shows are set in more affordable areas. Like, "Fixer Upper" is in Waco, Texas. "Good Bones," which is a newer show about a mother-daughter duo - they're in Indianapolis. So, you know, you might be able to redo your kitchen for...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But they never tell you that.
KAYSEN: No. They don't tell you. And many of the shows, like "Property Brothers," you're not even sure where on the planet they are. It's just, like, vague city. But then I've talked to producers of some of these shows. And, for example, sometimes, on some shows, they - when they paint the house, they may just paint the front. Like, they may not actually paint the whole house. Also, I spoke with HGTV executives. And the reason that they are so big on open concept is because it gets the male viewers. Like, guys like to watch sledgehammers and, like, taking out walls.
KAYSEN: So, like, it's for TV. It's not for, like, what's the best interests of the house, necessarily.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is crazy.
KAYSEN: And "House Hunters"...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wait a second. Are you telling me that the open-plan concept, which we are all prisoner to, is because dudes like to watch HGTV and sledgehammers?
KAYSEN: Dudes will only watch HGTV if there's sledgehammers. This is how you get your boyfriend to sit with you on the couch and watch it if you get to watch Jonathan Scott, like, knock down a wall.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I can't even tell you how betrayed I feel...
KAYSEN: And so yet...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Right now.
KAYSEN: I know. And so we all live in a house without walls because it looks good on TV.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I read this statistic. In 2017, Americans spent $424 billion in home improvements. That's 40% more than in 1996. And as you mention, we are following the aesthetic that they have all sort of implanted in our brains. And so I want to talk about greige.
KAYSEN: Right. And the whole thing with greige, which - if you do not know greige, it is that color that is neither gray nor beige yet a slightly in-between color and has taken over everything. It's a great color if you're trying to sell a house because when you're selling your house, you don't want a lot of personality. But with HGTV, there's always this aim for selling. And I think it's turned us into - to some extent - people who think always in terms of selling our homes. So greige has sort of taken over because it's this great neutral, and it will really work with resale when you're not moving anytime soon. So paint your walls teal. Like, who cares?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Or black...
KAYSEN: And it's, I think...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Or anything else.
KAYSEN: (Laughter) Anything but that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think we're watching so much right now?
KAYSEN: I think there's two ways to look at it. I think on one hand, there's a lot of instability. And HGTV gives you this very neat, packaged, idealized life where everything is solved in 30 minutes. But I think it goes deeper. Our homes are our biggest investment. And there's a lot of anxiety around that. Like, will we make a mistake? Did you make a mistake? Should you update your kitchen? Why haven't you? And HGTV is kind of like this big sister who tells you that it's totally doable. It's really fun. You can rip out all your walls. Everything will be great. And you can make this space exactly what you want. You can control it in a time when you can't control much else in your life. You can control your house. And with the right shade of greige, you will have, like, this fantastic house.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I will make a confession. I've had dreams where some of the stars from HGTV have shown up at my house and done things.
KAYSEN: Oh, that is so funny.
KAYSEN: Which ones?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I'm not telling on the radio.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Ronda Kaysen, contributor to The New York Times, talking to us today about HGTV, which turns 25 years old today. Ronda, thank you so much.
KAYSEN: Thank you. This was so much fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.